Skip to content

Northanger Abbey musings (1)

February 22, 2017
Northerner Abbey illus br Brock

Ch 9, illus. by CE Brock (Presumed Public Domain,

My Jane Austen group is reading Northanger Abbey – again – because this year is the 200th anniversary of its publication. However, I did write about the novel when we did it in 2015, so what to do? Well, the thing is that every time I read Austen something else pops into my mind to think about – and I’d love to share a couple of them.

Now, my group often does slow reads of the novels, and we are doing Northanger Abbey in two parts: up to Chapter 19, which is just before Catherine leaves Bath; and from Chapter 20 to the end which encompasses her arrival in and departure from Northanger Abbey. My comments in this post relate to the first part.

On heroes and heroines

Northanger Abbey, as you may know, spoofs or parodies Gothic novels, which were popular at the time. One of the clues to the parody is the frequency with which Austen refers to her heroine Catherine’s likeness (or not) to “heroines”. The novel commences:

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine…

And Austen goes on the describe why Catherine is not heroine material. She’s a simple country girl living in an ordinary family in which nothing dramatic happens. Her father is a “very respectable man” who is “not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters”. There are no lords or baronets in the vicinity to create hero intrigues … and so it goes.

However, it’s not this Gothic spoof that I want to discuss, but the whole concept of hero/heroine. It occurred to me as I was thinking about the heroine thread during this read that when I was a student writing essays I always referred to the protagonists of novels as the “hero” or “heroine”. I don’t do this so much now, preferring something like “main character”. I’m guessing this is part of our post-modern world.

But, this is not what I want to talk about either! My question to myself was where did this concept of “hero” and “heroine” come from, so I did a little digging. And here’s my disclaimer, because it was just a little digging that I did. I discovered a couple of things. One is that the poet-playwright-critic Dryden was the first to use the word “hero” in this way in 1697. The site on which I found this went on to say that “it is still commonly accepted as a synonym for protagonist, even when the protagonist does nothing particularly heroic”. Yes! told me that:

The appearance of heroes in literature marks a revolution in thought that occurred when poets and their audiences turned their attention away from immortal gods to mortal men, who suffer pain and death, but in defiance of this live gallantly and fully, and create, through their own efforts, a moment’s glory that survives in the memory of their descendants. They are the first human beings in literature …

This must be what Dryden was picking up on – a move from a focus on gods to people and their agency in their own lives. Another site (whose link I didn’t capture) said that:

The Novel was a new genre. Contrary to the epic or the drama, the Novel places the hero at the heart of its reflections. For the first time, we have access to the thoughts and feelings of the hero.

I’d argue that Austen, in presenting Catherine to us as she does, is drawing our attention to a transition from the notion of “hero” (or “heroine”) as someone who “live[s] gallantly and fully, and create[s], through their own efforts, a moment’s glory that survives in the memory of their descendants”, like a Gothic novel hero, to more realistic stories about ordinary human beings that she wrote. This is not to say that ordinary human beings can’t be heroic, but it’s a different sort of heroism, nest-ce pas? This is simplistic, I realise, in terms of analysing the “hero” in literature, but it’s given me something to hang my thinking on to.

On “nice”

In a conversation with hero (!) Henry and his sister Eleanor, Catherine asks Henry “do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?”

Now, if you went to school when I did, you were probably told not to use the word “nice” because it’s over-used and meaningless. Well, this is what Henry teases Catherine about. He replies (teasingly, cheekily, condescendingly, depending on your attitude to our hero), “The nicest—by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.”

At this point sister Eleanor steps in and tells Catherine that

“He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word ‘nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.”

“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?”

“Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement—people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”

“While, in fact,” cried his sister, “it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise…”

I loved reading that this injunction we all heard in the mid-late twentieth century was “a thing” back in the very early nineteenth. “Nice” has such a fascinating semantic history that I’m not going to explore here – but I can’t resist telling Henry that he’s wrong because my Shorter Oxford Dictionary says that, back around 1500, it originally meant “silly” or “stupid”. Did Austen know that too, and is having a joke on Henry?

What fun Austen is to read …

Monday musings on Australian literature: Arnold Haskell on the arts (3)

February 20, 2017

This should be my last post on Mr Haskell’s survey of the arts in Australia, and it focuses on Radio and the Movies. First though, in his section on literature, he talked about Australian readers and bookselling. He wrote that the average Australian “is a great reader; more books are bought per head of population in Australia and New Zealand than anywhere else in the English-speaking world”. He admires Australian booksellers who can’t quickly acquire the latest success. So, “they buy with courage and are true bookmen in a sense that is becoming rare in this [i.e. England] country.”

I believe Australians are still among the top book-buying nations, per capita, but I couldn’t find any supporting stats, so I may be making this up! However, I did love his commendation of the booksellers of the time, and his sense of their being “true bookmen” (as against their peers in England). He certainly wasn’t one to look down on the colonials!

“an admirable institution”

He writes about the “admirable” ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission). He recognises that wireless has become a necessity “in a country of wide open space” because it is, for many, “the only form of contact with the world”. He says the ABC “supplies much excellent music, and at the same time appeals to the man-in-the-street through its inspired cricket and racing reports”. You all know how much I like the ABC.

BUT radio is a vice too, he says, when it is left on all day “in every small hotel, seldom properly tuned and dripping forth music like a leaky tap”. He is mainly referring here to commercial broadcasting which he describes as “assaulting popular taste by their dreary programmes of gramophone records and blood-and-thunder serials … Unlike America, they cannot afford to sponsor worthwhile programmes”. Hmm, my old friends at National Film and Sound Archive might disagree given Australia’s large and by all accounts successful radio serial industry, though perhaps much of this occurred from the mid 1940s on – i.e. after Haskell did his research.

“isn’t Ned Kelly worth Jesse James?”

Haskell has a bit to say about Australians’ love of cinema, with “the consumption per head being greater than anywhere else”. Film theatres are “the largest and most luxurious buildings” in Australian cities, but

the films shown are the usual Hollywood productions. There is as yet no public for French or unusual films.

Poster for 1906 movie (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Poster for 1906 movie (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Australian films are being made, he said, “in small quantities” but are “not yet good enough to compete in the open market.” He is surprised that given Australia’s “natural advantages”, it had “produced so little in a medium that would encourage both trade and travel”. He goes on to describe how much people knew about America through its films -“we have seen cowboys, Indians, army, navy, civil war and Abraham Lincoln”. He suggests that Australia had just as interesting stories to tell and places to explore:

What of the Melbourne Cup, life on the stations, the kangaroos, the koala bear, the aboriginal, the romance of the Barrier Reef and the tropical splendour of the interior, the giant crocodiles of Queensland? What f the early history, as colourful as anything in America? isn’t Ned Kelly worth Jesse James?”

He suggests that films could do more for Australia in a year than his book, and yet, he says it seems “easier and safer to import entertainment by the mile in tin cans and to export nothing”!

He makes some valid points but he doesn’t recognise that Australia produced, arguably, the world’s first feature film, back in 1906, The story of the Kelly Gang – yes, about Ned Kelly.  It was successful in Britain, and pioneered a whole genre of bushranging films that were successful in Australian through the silent era. Three more Kelly films were made before Haskell visited Australia – but films were pretty ephemeral, and he clearly didn’t know of them.

At the time he researched and wrote this book, 1938 to 1940, there was still an active film industry. Cinesound Productions produced many films under Ken G Hall from 1931 to 1940, and Charles Chauvel made several films from the 1930s to 1950s, but the war years were lean times, and it was in those early years that Haskell did his research. It’s probably also true that then, as unfortunately still now, Australians were more likely to flock to overseas (that is, American, primarily) productions than their own.

Anyhow, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little historical survey of an outsider’s view of Australia as much as I have – though I guess it’s all rather irrelevant, and even self-indulgent, if you’re not Australian! Apologies for that!

Kate Chopin, Fedora (Review)

February 19, 2017
Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin (Public domain, via Wikipedia)

Time methinks for another Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week, particularly since one of their recent offerings was one of my favourite American authors, Kate Chopin. “Fedora” is the sixth story by Chopin I’ve discussed here, and is probably the shortest, more of a “sketch”. In fact its original title was apparently ““The Falling in Love of Fedora. A Sketch”

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, or her novel The awakening which I read a couple of times before blogging, you’ll know that Chopin was not afraid to tackle confronting subjects, like suicide, adultery, and miscegenation. LOA’s notes briefly discuss the controversy surrounding The awakening. Words such as  “morbid,” “sex fiction,” “poison,” were applied to it, and the clearly more conservative, younger, Willa Cather, whom I’ve also reviewed here, said that “I shall not attempt to say why Miss Chopin has devoted so exquisite and sensitive, well-governed a style to so trite and sordid a theme.”

Well, of course, many of us do know why she explored the themes she did in puritanical late-nineteenth century America, and we admire her for doing so. LOA explains that while her stories were usually sought after, some were a little too hot to handle. “Fedora” was one such, being “turned down by the national magazines that often competed for her work”, only appearing “in an upstart literary journal in her hometown of St. Louis”.

So, what is it that was so shocking about “Fedora”? Well, there’s the rub, because it’s one of those short stories that leaves you wondering. Fedora is 30 years old – and is described pretty much as the quintessential spinster:

The young people—her brothers’ and sisters’ guests, who were constantly coming and going that summer—occupied her to a great extent, but failed to interest her. She concerned herself with their comforts—in the absence of her mother—looked after their health and well-being; contrived for their amusements, in which she never joined. And, as Fedora was tall and slim, and carried her head loftily, and wore eye-glasses and a severe expression, some of them—the silliest—felt as if she were a hundred years old. Young Malthers thought she was about forty.

The story concerns her going to the station – driving the horse and cart – to pick up young Malthers’ sister who is returning from college. Young Malthers is, we are told, 23 – and Fedora has become fascinated by him, suddenly realising he is a man – “in voice, in attitude, in bearing, in every sense — a man”. Now, early in the story, we’d been told that:

Fedora had too early in life formed an ideal and treasured it. By this ideal she had measured such male beings as had hitherto challenged her attention, and needless to say she had found them wanting.

But, suddenly she is aware of him, she watches him:

She sought him out; she selected him when occasion permitted. She wanted him by her, though his nearness troubled her. There was uneasiness, restlessness, expectation when he was not there within sight or sound. There was redoubled uneasiness when he was by—there was inward revolt, astonishment, rapture, self-contumely; a swift, fierce encounter betwixt thought and feeling.

Fedora could hardly explain to her own satisfaction why she wanted to go herself to the station for young Malthers’ sister. She felt a desire to see the girl, to be near her; as unaccountable, when she tried to analyze it, as the impulse which drove her, and to which she often yielded, to touch his hat, hanging with others upon the hall pegs, when she passed it by.

It seems, then, that she is in love with him, as the original title encourages us to think – or that she, at least, feels a desire or passion for him. So, when she picks up Miss Malthers, why does she do what she does? That is the question – and it’s one I’m not going to answer, because that would be a spoiler and because the story is so short that you can read it, and ponder it, yourself. And anyhow, I’m still thinking about it myself, given the way Chopin teases us. Suffice it to say that, however you read it, Chopin was challenging her readers to think about desire – its origins, its expression, and its impact on the person who desires.

This is a beautiful and intriguing little “sketch”, though to call it that doesn’t fully do it justice.

Note: My other Kate Chopin reviews are A pair of silk stockings, After the winterA respectable womanDésirée’s baby and Morning walk. My, they are building up aren’t they?

Kate Chopin
First published: Criterion, February 20, 1897
(Under the pseudonym, La Tour)
Available: Online at the Library of America

William Lane, The salamanders (Review)

February 17, 2017

William Lane, The salamandersWilliam Lane’s latest novel, The salamanders, is a book that keeps you thinking from beginning to end. As I started it, I was thinking of it as a cross between Julian Davies’ Crow mellow (my review), a satirical novel about a house party for artists and their patrons, and Emily Bitto’s The strays (my review) about an artist colony, focusing particularly on the founding family. A few comparisons could be drawn, but I soon discovered that this is its own book.

I hadn’t heard of this* William Lane before, but The salamanders is his third novel. In a different version, with a different title, it was apparently shortlisted for the Vogel Prize. The book’s author bio also told me that Lane did his doctorate on Christina Stead. So, he’s been about the place – just not the places I’ve been haunting, clearly!

But now to the book. It starts during a beach holiday on the New South Wales coast. There’s the obsessed artist Peregrine, his ex-wife Naomi, their daughter Julia, his sons, David, Arthur, and George, from his previous relationship – and the adopted Rosie. There are also some visitors, including friend Elizabeth and her husband Johnno. The children range in age down from the 14-year-old David. Arthur, aged around 11, has a crush on the slightly older Rosie, and George and Julia form a happy play unit. Lane sets up the idyll – Naomi says they are “enjoying one another’s company far more than when we were married” – and then gradually pulls it apart, exposing past and present cracks. By the end of the first chapter – the book is told in 5 chapters – the idyll has broken, mostly due to Peregrine’s arrogant and self-involved behaviour, and Naomi departs with the two girls. Chapter 2 jumps 15 years or so. Arthur is around 27 years old, and is back at the beach-house living alone. Rosie comes to visit.

The rest of the book focuses primarily on Arthur and Rosie as they circle each other, coming together, separating, all the while trying to come to terms with their lives, their pasts and their desires for the future. Lane doesn’t over-explain, preferring to show not tell, so we are left to guess exactly what had happened on that holiday and just after, which resulted in changes to the family units. All we know is that the fallout has had long-lasting impact and that Rosie is coming from England, to which she’d run away. She refuses to eat with Arthur. This eating behaviour of hers is one of the motifs running through the novel, and represents an inner discordance, despite the refrain that what happened wasn’t their fault.

Other motifs run through the book. One is the indigenous rock art image, in a cliff near the house, of a falling man. It mesmerises Arthur, and represents his emotional state. The other main motif relates of course to salamanders – and various members of the somewhat-related lizard and snake families. These creatures occur both literally and metaphorically. Rosie, in Chapter 2, says to Arthur:

‘Skinks, salamanders, geckos, frill-necked lizards, water dragons,’ laughed Rosie in her burred and husky way, ‘this is the land of the lizard. When I see a lizard, I think of this country. I never realised that its surface is so lizard-like. That’s what I saw from the plane.

This motif is complex, conveying a range of ideas, many of them unsettling:

… Peregrine glittered, and his eyes grew milky. He might be covered in scales, with discreetly expanding gills. With an absolute, self-preserving, inward rush of energy, Elizabeth removed herself from him.

Lizards also represent the antiquity of the continent – “the young lizard … considered them from some million years ago”. And in this, they also represent resilience. “Lizards are tough”, says Rosie, and toughness, the ability to grow and move beyond their youth, is what Rosie and Arthur are working to achieve.

There’s an underlying Gothic sense to the novel which imbues it with an overall eeriness. Peregrine creates strange paintings in caves. There are mysterious shapes or shadows which appear out of the blue – “Something scurried outside the glass. He looked up, but did not catch its form” or “A liquid slithering passed along the glass of the house …” or “Then that scrabbling again. Something ancient was trying to get in”. There’s Arthur and Rosie’s roadtrip into Australia’s interior, and their uncertain relationship with each other. Not blood-related but brought up as brother and sister, they mystify and concern others.

So, where does all this go? I’m not sure it’s a book you can easily comprehend in one reading. The road trip to the interior and Peregrine’s bizarre painting projects in caves within caves suggest some sort of psyche-seeking but it isn’t completely resolved in my mind. Need it be?

Overall, then, it’s one of those mesmerising books that can be read in different ways, making it a little disconcerting. The first chapter felt a little over-written at times and I feared a clichéd story about dysfunctional artists’ colonies, but it then shifted into something more mysterious, less-defined, slippery, something incorporating a broad, abstract story about our relationship to art, place and nature, and a more personal story about identity and family.

According to myth, salamanders are born of and resistant to fire. Rosie says during her road-trip with Arthur that “we’re salamanders – we don’t feel the fire”. And that, in a way, is the point of the novel, surviving the fires that confront us.

William Lane
The salamanders
Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2016
ISBN: 9780994395849

(Review copy courtesy Transit Lounge)

* I allude to the late nineteenth-early twentieth century Utopian of the same name, whose The workingman’s paradise I’ve reviewed.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Memory of the World and Dorothea Mackellar

February 13, 2017

Memory of the World Logo

By UN [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re an Australian, did you know that last week seven new entries were added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Australian Register?

If not, let me start at the beginning … with UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme. Established in 1992, it’s the documentary heritage equivalent of the World Heritage Site programme which protects physical sites of natural and cultural significance. It’s a significant programme, particularly for those of us who support libraries and archives.

Briefly, it’s a multi-pronged programme aimed at saving and preserving the world’s documentary heritage, but the most visible activity is its international register of “documents, manuscripts, oral traditions, audio-visual materials, library and archival holdings of universal value”. You can find out more on the official website.  To date, there are five “works” from Australia on the register. The first two added were the Mabo Case Documents and Captain Cook’s Endeavour Journal.

However, there are, of course, more “documents” that countries like Australia would like to register. Some of these might eventually make it to the international list, but some might only ever be of national, not universal, interest. For both these types of documents we luckily have the Australian Memory of the World committee which manages an Australian register – in addition to proposing nominations to the international register. The current chair of the Australian committee is Ros Russell, whose novel Maria returns I’ve reviewed here and who was on one of last year’s Canberra Writers Festival panels that I wrote up.

There are now 57 items on the Australian register, the last seven inscribed at a ceremony in Canberra last week. Knowing of my blog and interest in promoting Australian literature, Ros emailed me last week asking if I’d be interested in publicising one of these latest additions. Would I? Did she even need to ask? Of course I would … and so here goes …

Wide Brown Land sculpture

Wide Brown Land (National Arboretum)

Many of you – particularly my Australian readers – will have guessed from this post’s title what this particular addition is, and they’d be right, Dorothea Mackellar’s poem “Core of my heart (My country)”. This poem starts:

The love of field and coppice
Of green and shaded lanes,
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins.
Strong love of grey-blue distance,
Brown streams and soft, dim skies
I know, but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.

But, the verse which most Australians know by heart is the second one:

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me!

According to the notes accompanying the inscription, Mackellar, who was born in Australia in 1885, wrote the first draft sometime between 1904 and 1908 during a trip to England, and finalised it for publication in 1908. These notes conclude with this assessment:

Regarded by many as Australia’s quintessential poet, Dorothea Mackellar’s most iconic works offer powerful statements of fervent patriotism and connection to the land, captured as Australia was coming of age as a nation and on the brink of participation in global warfare. In the century since its creation, ‘My Country’ has had an almost immeasurable impact on the collective consciousness of Australians, especially within the sphere of literary culture and, for many, remains the ultimate expression of the centrality of the land to Australian identity. A wonderful poet of light and colour, commenting towards the end of her life, Mackellar made her own assessment of the significance of her poetry: ‘I did say more or less what I wanted to say, and that’s the satisfaction.’

Not only is this a worthwhile addition to the Australian list for the reasons given above but, as Ros pointed out, it’s the first literary work on the Australian register and it’s by a woman! Woo hoo! Not that I’m competitive or anything, but it is always encouraging to see a woman’s achievement recognised.

Now, I did a little search of Trove – of course – and found an article on Dorothea Mackellar by critic Bertram Stevens whose Golden treasury of Australian verse I featured in a Monday Musings last year. The article, written in 1919, came from his series, Some Australian Writers. He says of “Core of my heart” that ‘love of country has seldom been expressed more beautifully, or in language more simple and sincere’ and he comments particularly on her love of and ability to describe colour. He writes that in her poems about the Australian landscape she ‘helps many of us to realise the value of the gift of colour in Australia, which was so often considered sombre and melancholy — a “haggard continent,”* in fact.’

To conclude, I’ll share some of Canberra writer Adrian Caesar’s inscription ceremony address, which Ros sent me. He started by acknowledging the important work done by cultural institutions in ‘collecting, preserving and exhibiting documents of historical, political and cultural significance’. He noted the ‘repeated budgetary attacks’ on these institutions and said

it is more imperative that ever to stridently insist upon the lasting relevance of the documentary record. It is unfortunate, too, that the incursions of post-modern relativism by tending to suggest that all history is fiction has played into the hands of those who seek to benefit from what we have heard recently referred to as ‘alternative facts’. In the increasingly Orwellian world of political doublespeak, the preservation of documents to which empirical method might be applied, and from which ‘facts’ may be adduced, seems more vital than ever to our ability to understand our past and chart our future.


He then discussed the poem. He talked of the value of having access to original manuscripts, discussed the poem’s cultural relevance and importance to Australian life, analysed its meaning including addressing the problematic issues of “patriotism and nationalism”, and explained his preference for the original title “Core of my heart”.

He concluded that the inscription of this poem’s manuscript to the Register:

leads us both to a contemplation of the circumstances of its composition and to the power of its potential ongoing contribution. For surely in this its first completed form, it might lead us and students of the future to think about our relationship to land and landscape, and not only to use that to assert our independence from England, but also to seek an empathetic understanding of Aboriginal notions of country. Instead of ‘us’ and ‘them’, it seems to me that love of landscape, love of country as it is articulated in Mackellar’s poem might provide a bridge towards healing rather than a chasm between colonisers and colonised.

Nicely done, eh? And thanks to Ros for the heads up.

NOTE: The original manuscript draft of the poem has been digitised and can be viewed online.

* Referencing, I presume, the poem “Written in Australia” by New Zealand-born Arthur H Adams.

Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman (eds), Rebellious daughters (Review)

February 11, 2017

Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman, Rebellious daughtersTo rebel or not to rebel, that is the question. At least, it’s the question that interested memoirists Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman who, having written their own stories about “conservative upbringings and subsequent rebellions”, wanted to discover what other women could reveal about that “universal life experience”, the rebellion against parents. This book, Rebellious daughters, is, obviously, the end result – and it makes for fascinating reading.

In their Introduction, Katsonis and Kofman quote American author Gordon Lish’s statement that the  best thing writers can do is to get themselves “in trouble”, to “make it hot” for themselves. This is what they wanted from their contributors, they wanted them to take risks – and it’s what they got.

Like most anthologies, Rebellious daughters has been carefully ordered. It starts with one of the grand-dames of Australian literature, Marion Halligan (“The daughters of debate”) who describes herself as “well-behaved”, as the “good girl” that so many of the later contributors rebelled against. But this is not to say that she didn’t engage in her own little subversions, such as reading forbidden books. They didn’t do her any harm, she writes, “the delicate ones were my parents.” I related to Halligan’s story because, like her, I was the eldest, “the one who came before, who paved the way” and didn’t rebel dramatically. But, enough of that, I’m talking order, structure, here.

The book ends with author-journalist Jane Caro (“Where mothers stop and daughters start”) who shares her daughters’ rebellions, the loud in-your-face one and the withdraw-and-don’t-engage one. Her motherly perspective provides a satisfying, logical conclusion to the anthology. And then, right in the middle, the ninth story of seventeen, is author-publisher Rebecca Starford’s “Who owns my story”. Drawing on her own life and memoir, Starford grapples with the form, with the ethics and practice of memoir writing. I was intrigued by the placement of this contribution, but it’s clever. Having read eight already, I was ready to think about the issues Starford posed, and then, as I read the final eight, I had them in mind.

So, what are the issues? Starford starts by quoting author JP Dunleavy, who said that “The purpose of writing is to make your mother and father drop dead with shame”. Starford likes this quote because

it reveals, simply and with a degree of sharp comedy, the risky nature of memoir writing.

She touches on several issues. One is the idea of shame, and whether it is “an emotion women memoirists suffer from more acutely than our male counterparts.” She thinks it is, and wonders if this is due to girls being taught that they should never speak out. She also explores “a nagging moral quandary”, that is, “the right” to tell stories that involve others. It is, she admits, “the biggest ethical question a memoirist faces” particularly when the memoir portrays these others “in an unflattering light”. She discusses the option of writing the story as fiction. (But we all know cases where people “see” through that – or think they do – don’t we!) Anyhow, she says that she couldn’t choose the fiction option:

For me, the act of writing a memoir was important to the process. If I’d written my experiences as fiction, I would have been hiding behind the genre, and that would have been self-defeating, less courageous, and less honest.

This makes sense to me – and implies that many memoirs are a form of catharsis or, at least, of resolving one’s past. This seems to be the case for Starford who concludes that her memoir has resulted in improved communications with her father. And, she says, while her memoir might have seemed like rebellion to him, for her it was about “seeking to understand him and my mother” and how her experiences as a child had shaped her.

Starford’s analysis of the personal and ethical implications of writing memoirs provides a wonderful grounding for understanding of the other “stories”. There’s a lot of pain here, but there’s also humour, occasionally laugh-out-loud, more often wry. Lee Kofman’s story (“Me, mother and Sexpo”) about taking her conservative Hassidic mother to the Sexpo exhibition is hilarious, but is also a lesson in the assumptions we make – particularly about our parents. Michelle Law’s (“Joyride”), on the other hand, perfectly captures her pain of rebelling only to discover that she’d misread the feelings of the boy in question.

Not surprisingly many of the stories are about tension over boys and sex. Krissy Kneen (“Wundermärchen: A retelling of my grandmother”), whose Steeplechase I’ve reviewed, comes to realise in the end that instead of being the rebellious granddaughter she thought she was, she had taken on her grandmother’s mantle, she’d become a storyteller who likes to shock the innocent. It’s just that her grandmother used death, where she uses sex.  In “Resisting the nipple”, Rochelle Siemienowicz, whose memoir Fallen I’ve reviewed, tells of her struggle against the “good girl” expectations of her strict Seventh-day Adventist family and then of her complicated feelings, particularly regarding her mother, when becoming a mother herself.

In many of the stories, the youthful rebels are shocked to discover things aren’t as they thought they were or would be. Jamila Rizvi (“The good girl”) is confused when she realises that a girl (like her baby sister for example) could be not-good but liked. Jo Case (“Rebelling to conform”), in her desperation to be popular, starts to do poorly at school only to realise, later, that some of those popular girls she was trying to emulate got good grades. And Amra Pajalic (“Nervous breakdowns”) is frustrated by her out-of-touch migrant mother’s nervous breakdowns until she realises the cause is a mental illness.

Not all the rebellions in the book are against mothers – some are against fathers and grandmothers – and not all are resolved but, in most of the stories, age and experience eventually bring rapprochement. That doesn’t mean of course that the daughters capitulate. Rather, they come to understand their mothers (or whomever) a little more and their mothers likewise learn to accept the daughter they have. As Susan Wyndham (“A man of one’s own”) concludes

life is a long lesson and from this distance I prefer to look back with tenderness on those riotous years … And for both of us I say, no regrets.

And that seems the perfect point on which to end my post on this engaging, sometimes shocking, but thoroughly generous and warm-hearted book.

Note: A percentage from the book’s sales is going to the Women’s Legal Service Victoria.

aww2017-badgeMaria Katsonis and Lee Kofman (eds)
Rebellious daughters: True stories from Australia’s finest female writers
Edgecliff: Ventura Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781925183528

(Review copy courtesy Ventura Press)

Stella Prize 2017 Longlist

February 7, 2017

“I feel like we’re at the Oscars for nerds” tweeted Tracey Spicer, ABC Journalist, at tonight’s announcement of the 2017 Stella Prize Longlist. Love it. Nerds of the world unite!

When the longlist (of 12) was announced last year, I had read and reviewed only one of the books. By the end of the year, I had read 6 which I’m satisfied with given how much I read last year overall. This year I haven’t read any (yet)! Really? Where have I been?

The judges are different again to last year’s, with just the chair continuing. They are writer Delia Falconer, bookseller Diana Johnston, writer/memoirist Benjamin Law, academic/Chair of First Nations Australia Writers’ Network Inc. Sandra Phillips, and writer/chair Brenda Walker.

Anyhow, here is the longlist, including, sadly, two posthumous nominations:

  • Victoria: the queen by Julia Baird (HarperCollins/Biography)
  • Between a wolf and a dog by Georgia Blain (Scribe/Novel) (Posthumous)
  • The hate race by Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette/Memoir)
  • Poum and Alexandre by Catherine de Sainte Phalle (Transit Lounge/Novel)
  • Offshore: Behind the wire at Manus and Nauru by Madeline Gleeson (NewSouth/Non-fiction)
  • Avalanche by Julia Leigh (WW Norton/Memoir)
  • An isolated incident by Emily Maguire (Picador/Novel) (Lisa named this as her book of the year last year, so I really should make this a priority)
  • The high places: Stories by Fiona McFarlane (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Short stories)
  • Wasted: A story of alcohol, grief and a death in Brisbane by Elspeth Muir (Text/Biography-Memoir)
  • The museum of modern love by Heather Rose (Allen & Unwin/Novel)
  • Dying: A memoir by Cory Taylor (Text/Memoir) (Posthumous)
  • The media and the massacre: Port Arthur 1996-2016 by Sonya Voumard (Transit Lounge/Nonfiction)

As usual a mixed lot, but a different mix to last year’s. There’s significantly more non-fiction (more than half in fact), including a few memoirs – and fewer short stories. I suppose it’s purely coincidental, but I was surprised at the number of memoirs/autobiographies/biographies I read last year. Are memoirs making a come-back? I note that the list seems to be rather low on “diversity”, but two of the judges could be seen to represent diverse backgrounds, so presumably that issue was canvassed.

I have read and liked all the Stella Prize winners to date: Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with birds, Clare Wright’s The forgotten rebels of Eureka, Emily Bitto’s The strays and Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things. I look forward to seeing which of the above books wins this year …

The shortlist will be announced on March 8, and the winner on April 18.