Skip to content

Monday musings on Australian literature: Books in The Australian Women’s Weekly, 1930s-1950s

May 29, 2017

This will be a short post, tonight, mainly because I couldn’t find, in the time I had available, enough information for my original idea – which was to discuss The Australian Women’s Weekly’s support for Australian writers. This was inspired by my coming across, during last week’s research into Currawong Publishing Company, an article about a prize for writers being offered by The Weekly (as it is known, familiarly) in 1941. There were two prizes, one for a short story and one for a serial. The reason it popped up during my search was because M.L.L. Woolacott of Currawong Publishing Company was one of the people quoted as supporting the prize. S/he said:

It is gratifying to see a publication such as The Australian Women’s Weekly play a leading role in the movement towards firmly establishing literature in Australia. For this is the moment to give Australian writers every opportunity.

Before I continue to the main matter of today’s post, I’d like to share what a couple of other people said. Novelist Katharine Susannah Prichard (see my review of her The pioneers) said:

Australia has many writers who would produce fine stories and novels if only they could be assured of having their works published in Australia. This competition being launched by The Australian Women’s Weekly is going to give them that chance.

And novelist Eleanor Dark (see my review of her Juvenilia), whose book The timeless land had just been selected as book-of-the-month in the USA, said that “Literature in Australia needs encouraging, for without encouragement the growth will be slow.”

So, a lot of positive support, but I had trouble tracking down an announcement of the winners, and whether the competition was run again. The information could be there, but there’s only so much time …

However, as I was researching this, I did discover that during the 1930s to 1950s, The Weekly regularly published complete novels in an issue, often in a supplement. They were, I’d say, more like novellas or very-long-form short stories, but what a great service the magazine provided to readers – and presumably to the writers whose work was published.

Now, reader, you know what I did next: I checked out these novels and writers to see if any were recognisable. I only checked a handful – there’s only so much time, you know – but I found that mostly the names were not known to me, nor to Professor Google or AustLit. Some were, though, such as T.C. Bridges whose Messenger’s millions appeared in 1935 and C.K. Thompson whose The third man (not THE third man, of course!) also appeared in 1935. The third man Supplement is headed “complete book-length novel”. A book-length novel? I wonder what other sorts of novels there are? Anyhow, Thompson was a journalist based in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. T.C Bridges, on the other hand, was born in England and worked primarily as a freelance writer. Although he was clearly published in Australia, AustLit says that they have no evidence that he visited Australia.

This was then popular literature, perhaps even pulp fiction, but I’m impressed that during a time when people didn’t always have a lot of disposable income they could find books in their magazine. (Of course, there were also the public libraries.)

Blandings Way, Book Two, magazine headerBut now, I said this was going to be short, and I’m going to stick to that promise, so I’m concluding with a summary of “the story so far” for Book Two of Blanding’s Way, written by Eric Hodgins and published in 1952:

THE STORY SO FAR: In their Dream Home at Lansdale the Blandings had all sorts of exciting things happen. The vegetable garden produced a record crop, the fields caught fire, thirteen-year-old Joan became a prize-winning essayist, and Mr. Blandings was elected to the school board. NOW

I do love that the exciting things included producing a record crop, becoming a prize-winning essayist, and being elected to the School Board. Sounds right up my alley! Oh, in case you are interested, the “book” occupies 10 multi-column-tiny-font pages of the magazine. If you tried to print the “book” it would, according to my system, take 64 pages.

Note: The National Library of Australia has produced a discovery page for The Weekly, from which their digitised articles can be accessed directly. You can in fact, locate and read any issue published between establishment in 1933 and 1982. Now, if I had the time …

Jill Roe, Our fathers cleared the bush (#bookreview)

May 28, 2017

Jill Roe, Our fathers cleared the bushAs that old pop song goes, what kind of fool am I? I went, you see, to Macquarie University, which I chose for its then modern approach to tertiary education. It was great, but somehow, I didn’t end up in tutorials taught by Thea Astley, nor did I study Australian history in which Jill Roe was one of the University’s foundation lecturers. What was I thinking? Hindsight is a marvellous thing, eh?

Most of you will know who Thea Astley is, but non-Australians, in particular, may not know Jill Roe. She is best known for her comprehensive award-winning biography of Miles Franklin (see a review by Lisa, ANZLitLovers), but she wrote many books and was, among other things, a regular contributor to the Australian Dictionary of Biography. The book I’m reviewing here, Our fathers cleared the bush, was published last year, only months before her death early this year.

Old and new regionalism

What a fascinating read it was – for its content, which tells the story of Eyre Peninsula, a part of Australia I don’t know, and for its form and style. This latter is what I’m going to focus on mostly in this post. The book’s subtitle, “remembering Eyre Peninsula”, provides some clue to its form, which I’d describe as an amalgam of memoir/family history, regional history and historiography. Roe seems, overall, to be exploring an approach to writing the history of regions.  In her introduction she writes:

The aim is not so much to tell my own story – though I often start there – nor to fill a gap in the literature – though there is one – but rather, on the basis of personal reflections and a now quite extensive range of materials, to capture some key aspects of, and moments in, the regional experience over time.

“Extensive range of materials”. Hold that thought, because I’ll come back to it. For now, though, I’m sticking to the regional history idea. Chapter 7, one of my favourites in fact, is titled “I danced for the Queen”. In it she writes quite a bit about regionalism and regional histories. She suggests that as Australian history established itself in the 1950s and 60s, “some fine regional studies appeared” and she names a few. It was “a golden age of regional history when it seemed the national story was becoming clear”. But, she argues, that was “old regionalism”. Since the 1970s, new issues and factors have arisen. These include the understanding of “regionalism” itself; the rise of interest in local and family history which is adding “new building bricks, even new layers” to the undertaking and appreciation of regional history; the role of the environment; and that major factor, the recognition of Aboriginal history, which she says introduces a discontinuity into held narratives. She suggests that exploring Aboriginal history “seems to work best in regional frameworks”. Perhaps, but there is also need to include Aboriginal history in the overarching national story. I presume she would argue that too?

She teases out the Aboriginal history issue a bit more. She says:

On a grander scale, the history of the Kimberley in Western Australia is being transformed by research into the Aboriginal experience, much of it distressing, none of it yet settled or fully integrated into the national story. This history may be hard for some to take in, but that is because it adds new data and a challenging dimension to taken-for-granted narratives. In time, along with environmental and the other histories, Indigenous history will most likely lead to a new regional history in this country.

She then makes what could almost be a manifesto:

… my firm belief that any history in which people cannot recognise themselves – whether proudly or ruefully, in surprise or dismay – is not good history.

Beautifully said, and hard to argue with – at least these days when we don’t accept that history begins and ends with great deeds by big men (and occasionally women).

“a now quite extensive range of materials”

Now, histories can often be rather dry, but Our fathers cleared the bush has a lovely conversational tone. It almost felt like she was talking to me as I read along. We learn a lot about life on the Peninsula from the 1840s to the 1960s and beyond. We hear about farms and schools, churches and sport, transport and the country show. I laughed at her comment that when she turned her mind back to the Peninsula in 1998, she “paid no attention to sport as a source of social life and values, a mistake I mustn’t make again”. Anyhow, all these are features of country life, and many are shared through the prism of her and her family’s experience, but while we come away knowing the skeleton of her life, this is definitely not a memoir. The focus is the history.

However, as well as telling the history, she also shares her methodology and her sources. She says that “the discovery of a new source is the historian’s delight”. She mentions women’s diaries and school records; and she talks about the value and limits of census data. She uses anecdotal evidence but carefully notes the unreliability of recall. She notes there are limits to what personal memories can offer the large picture. In her family, for example, there were no sons so the daughters “did more than usual of the outdoor work.” It would be not be valid to generalise, then, she’s saying, from her family. For some readers, Roe’s historiographical discussions might get in the way of the history itself, but I enjoyed getting to know the historian’s mind.

Finally, she also points to histories that are still waiting, such as “a comprehensive account of the Aboriginal experience of the Eyre Peninsula”. Others include “the coming of service stations” to Australia or the role of Greek Orthodox churches in fishing communities. Anyone looking for a PhD topic might like to start here!

So, I’m at the end of my post and I’ve told you very little about the Eyre Peninsula. All I can say is that if you are interested in the Peninsula, or in the history of rural Australia, you should find what you’re looking for in this book (particularly given its index and extensive end-notes) but if you are interested in approaches to modern history writing, this would also be a good book to read. Roe says, early on, that her approach to history is “post-modern, in the sense that it can’t come to a definite conclusion”. That is certainly what she has presented here – a story about a region that tells us much but which also leaves many questions to be answered – because life goes on and there’s always more historical research to do.

PS For a lovely tribute to Jill Roe written just after her death, please read blogger (and historian) Yvonne’s post.

aww2017 badgeJill Roe
Our fathers cleared the bush: Remembering Eyre Peninsula
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781743054291

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

Telling indigenous Australian stories

May 27, 2017

This weekend is particularly significant for indigenous Australians. No, let me rephrase that: it’s significant for all Australians because what happens to indigenous Australians marks who we are as a nation. And, right now, who we are is not wonderful.

Anniversaries galore

If you’re Australian, you’ll know what I’m talking about, but for everyone else, the situation is that we have two important anniversaries this weekend. Today, 26th May, is the 20th anniversary of the tabling in Parliament of the Bringing Them Home report documenting the Stolen Generations. (On 26th May the following year, the first National Sorry Day was held to keep front and centre our poor treatment of indigenous Australians, so next year will be its 20th anniversary). Then tomorrow, 27th May, is the 50th anniversary of a referendum held in Australia to change the Constitution regarding indigenous Australians. The resounding Yes vote (90% overall) ensured that indigenous Australians would from then on “be counted in reckoning the Population”. It also gave the Federal Government the power to pass legislation specifically for indigenous Australians. And, just to add to the significance, next week, on 3 June, will be the 25th anniversary of the Mabo decision which recognised native title in Australia.

These anniversaries are, naturally, causing much reflection about what has been achieved since then, and what we (and indigenous Australians in particular) would like to achieve. The truth is that achievement has been woeful. Indigenous Australians’ health, education, incarceration rates – and so on – are significantly worse than for the rest of the population. It’s outrageous – and a subject too big for me here. However, I did want to mark this time, so am going to return to an issue we’ve discussed here before – who tells indigenous Australians’ stories. I’ve chosen this approach because of a serendipitous find in the National Library (NLA) bookshop yesterday.

Jeanine Leane's Purple threads

Courtesy University of Queensland Press*

You see, I’ve been wondering recently what indigenous writer, Wiradjuri-woman, Jeanine Leane is up to. I greatly enjoyed her book, Purple threads (my review), and was impressed by the forthrightness and clarity with which she discussed this issue of telling indigenous Australian stories at an NLA conference back in 2013. She spoke particularly about classics, and she said this (re-quoting from one of my posts):

Through Xavier Herbert, Patrick White, David Malouf & more recently Kate Grenville, who among others have been hailed as nation writers & what I saw and still see to some extent in Australian literature to date, is a continuous over-writing of settler foundation stories which overwrite Aboriginal experience and knowledge. Settlers are always re-settling and Australian literature really reflects this and the critics and scholars write of such works as if everyone reading it is also a settler reader.

Now, here comes the serendipitous bit. I was browsing the Library’s bookshop yesterday while waiting for a meeting and noticed a recent issue (No. 225, Summer 2016) of the lit journal, Overland. I find it hard to resist lit journals so I picked it up and, flicking through the table of contents, saw an article by Jeanine Leane titled “Other people’s stories: When is writing cultural appropriation?”. That was all the excuse I needed to buy the issue.

Settler narratives controlling indigenous stories

In some ways it goes over ground I’ve written on before, but that post discussed an article on the topic by non-indigenous writer, Margaret Merrilees. She argued that “questions of appropriation become issues of personal ethics, conscience issues”. However, Merrilees was approaching the topic more from a practising writer’s point of view, and she made some sense regarding the challenge confronting non-indigenous writers. If they leave indigenous characters out altogether they are continuing the dominant culture’s silencing of indigenous lives but if they include them they risk not getting it right.

Leane explores the issue from a broader political view. She’s concerned that the “Australian” story continues to be in the hands of “settler” writers and that their stories – including, and particularly, those involving indigenous characters, like Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo and Patrick White’s A fringe of leaves – become “the authoritative narrative of settler colonialism”. Readers see these books as “Aboriginal stories” but they are not, she says.

She unpicks Lionel Shiriver’s controversial dismissal of concerns about “cultural appropriation” at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival last year. She argues that Shriver’s idea of writers using “empathy” to create characters who are “other” to themselves does not recognise what this “empathy” really involves. For Leane, you don’t get this “empathy” from archival research but from social and cultural immersion. She criticises Australian writers for not having “this level of exposure” and, moreover, for not “striving for it”.

Leane accepts that the books by “settler” writers – like Kate Grenville, et al – have a place in the study of Australian literature but they need to be read and studied side by side with works by indigenous Australian writers, who are now emerging and challenging settler representations. She refers to Larissa Behrendt’s analysis of White’s A fringe of leaves in her book Finding Eliza: Power and colonial storytelling (a book I’ve still to read but which Lisa, Michelle and Bill have reviewed on their blogs).

Engagement through literature

Leane ends her essay discussing what she sees is the critical issue – which is not whether non-indigenous authors should include indigenous characters in the their books or how they can do it – but the paucity of indigenous writing being taught in schools. She argues there is a link between the higher attrition of indigenous students in schools and “the lack of Aboriginal voice and representation in the curricula”. And,  further, she asks,

if, on the whole, non-Indigenous people are not reading Indigenous self-representation, how can they write about Indigenous lives and experiences? Put another way, if non-Indigenous people are still only encountering Indigenous people via the works of non-Indigenous writers/historians/filmmakers/artists, then are they really encountering us at all? How can they even think about writing about us if you don’t really know us?

Very good question – which addresses both Shriver’s ideas re “empathy” and Merrilees’ concern about including indigenous characters.

Leane quotes Canadian scholar Margery Fee who addresses the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people. There needs to be a conversation between us, she says – and that conversation, says another Canadian, Judy Iseke-Barnes, can be had through the sharing of literature. Yes! Iseke-Barnes talks of “conversation-through-literature, of cross-cultural engagement through ‘deep and informed readings’ of Indigenous texts”. She sees this as an ongoing process. Leane argues that “this kind of engagement must precede any discussion of how to ‘write’ Indigenous people.”

She then teases out this engagement, clarifying in simple terms exactly what it means, and concludes that without sincerely trying to understand indigenous culture, it is impossible to properly represent indigenous characters. It is, instead, cultural appropriation, it’s “stealing someone else’s story, someone else’s voice”.

I like that Leane not only presents the problem here – and argues it lucidly – but she has a solution. And it’s a solution that would surely make sense to any reader – which presumably is all of you who read my blog? I’m glad I found – serendipitously – what Leane was up to!

This essay is available online, free, at the Overland site, but if you’d like to support them, you can also buy it at the link.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Currawong Publishing Company

May 22, 2017

Currawong First Novel logoAs regular readers know, I’ve been involved in much clearing out of houses over the last eighteen months. I have, as a result, accumulated a small but interesting collection of older books, several of which I have already posted on. Today’s post is inspired by another such book, And all the trees are green (1944), by A.E. Minnis who’s unknown to me. However, my post is not so much on Minnis but on the book’s publisher, Currawong Publishing Company.

It captured my attention for a couple of reasons, starting with the little logo on the plain front cover which reads “Currawong First Novel”. Inside, there is a publisher’s Foreword which says that the novels in the series are all “first novels” (obviously) by “young Australian authors”. That made me sit up. I wondered how many authors whom we now know got their start with Currawong – the way many contemporary authors got their start with publishers like McPhee Gribble (such as Helen Garner and Tim Winton) and Fremantle Press (Elizabeth Jolley). Anyhow, the Foreword goes on to set out its philosophy, which is that their authors are chosen mainly for three reasons:

Each author has a story to tell, and tells it. [Haha, love that “and tells it” bit]
Each author’s style shows more than a promise of developing into a powerful literary instrument.
Each author is Australian, either by birth or adoption.

They continue to say that they invite manuscripts from authors who have not had a novel published in Australia or overseas, that “the setting of the plot of any novel submitted need not be Australian”, and, something most authors would love, that “each author whose work is accepted will be placed under contract to The Currawong Publishing Company for his or her next three literary works”.

You can see why I wanted to find out more about them. The AustLit database, which is, unfortunately, only fully accessible by subscription (which I don’t have) says this

The Currawong Publishing Company was a war-time success, active from about 1942 to 1951. Currawong issued a wide variety of fiction – including mysteries, westerns, romances, and fantasies – under the slogan ‘You can’t go wrong with a Currawong’; with a few exceptions, Currawong’s authors were Australian. Currawong also issued a series of ‘Unpopular Pamphlets’, advancing left-wing economic and socialist ideas for post-war reconstruction.

I was also able to read, before I hit the paywall, that the most referenced work relating to this entry is Kylie Tennant’s award-winning debut novel, Tiburon, albeit Currawong’s edition was a later “pocket” one.

Anyhow, Currawong sounded interesting, so I decided to research further, but they aren’t listed in my copies of The Oxford companion to Australian literature, nor The Cambridge companion to Australian literature, nor the index in the Annals of Australian literature. I could find them in Trove, of course, though mostly as the publisher of books being reviewed. That’s better than nothing!

I found, for example, a review of a novel by Ailsa Craig, If blood should stain the wattle (1947). The reviewer calls it a “fine first novel by an Australian author” and says:

Her style is impressive and she writes convincingly about country scenes with which she is familiar … It is rather a sombre story of a modern tyrant who rules the lives of his family in almost mediaeval style. You will find it an enthralling study of human relationships handled simply yet vividly.

The Courier-Times reviewer was a little less glowing, saying “There is quiet talent here but a little too much of the Daphne du Maurier technique to give it its own personality” though does admit that “the story is a good one, well-told”. Meanwhile, over at The Age, the reviewer says that the book was highly commended in the competition won by Ruth Park’s Harp in the south! Ailsa Craig, according to AustLit, was “a writer, journalist and scholar. She was also the first female London correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald” and she won the prestigious, in Australian journalism circles, Walkely Award.

After Trove, I turned to Professor Google. I didn’t find a lot but did find, in Google books, a reference in History of the book in Australia, Vol. 3: Paper empires, edited by Craig Munro. The reference, which appears in the essay by Ian Morrison titled “Case study: Pulp fiction”, explains that Currawong was one of the leading publishers of pulp fiction – those mysteries, westerns, fantasies, etc – during the war years.

Unfortunately, in all this research, I couldn’t find much about the reason I decided to write this post, their “first novel” series, but I did find this little anecdote in one of those end-of-year articles newspapers like to write about books. The Sunwrote this in its article, “Tastes in books were changing”:

Oddity of the publishing year has been the fact that two books on taxation became bestsellers almost overnight. Earlier in the year Currawong Publishing Company issued “I Can Get It For You Tax-Free!” by E. Kellie, with an introduction by Sydney taxation expert J. A. L. Gunn. In quick time three editions of the book were sold. Currawong has now published, at 10/6, a sequel entitled “Farmers, Bushrangers, Businessmen,” by B. Hall, curiously with an introduction by J. A. L. Gunn. The title is drawn from the indiscreet remarks made about Australia in London last year by Dr. C. E. M. Joad. B. Hall’s book is as witty and as shrewdly informative about taxation affairs as E. Kellie’s book. Chapter headings range from “How to Jack Up Your Director’s Remuneration” to “Don’t Go Shop Crazy Till You Get Your Provisional Assessment.” ‘The publishers’ claim that Mr. Hall can teach Mr. Kellie a thing or two about income tax legerdemain is amply confirmed and must be causing Treasurer Chifley some concern. Taxpayers can confidently anticipate a companion book next year by Capt. Starlight with an introduction by J. A. L. Gunn. (14 December 1947)

There is a joke here – besides the fact that a book on tax went quick-smart into three editions! –  in that the books were, in fact, written by J.A.L. (John Angus Alexander) Gunn. The so-called authors, E Kellie and B. Hall, allude to bushrangers Ned Kelly and Ben Hall, hence the reviewer’s reference to the next book being by Captain Starlight! I’m not sure that all the contemporary reviewers got this. (By the way, Gunn was a highly respected accounting practitioner and was elected into the Australian Accounting Hall of Fame.)

During all this research I found a wide variety of books published by Currawong, in addition to pulp fiction – a book on Indonesia and one by A.O. Neville on Australia’s coloured minority; a book on Australian art, and one containing plays; an autobiography by tennis player Dinny Pails, and much more. They were clearly an active publisher in their time.

As for A E Minnis, I could find little about him – though I did discover that it’s a him. The only review I found starts with “Mr Minnis writes interestingly concerning the odyssey of his young hero, Dick Radford” but it then goes on to just describe the story. I wonder if Mr Minnis ever got his next two books!

Shakespeare’s Sonnets, app-style

May 20, 2017

Back in 2011 I wrote a post, a few in fact, on Touchpress‘s wonderful iPad app for TS Eliot‘s poem The wasteland. I love that app. It’s an excellent example of how interactive digital media can enhance learning about or enjoyment of literature, for a start, though Touchpress has applied its approach to a wide range of scientific and historical topics, including the solar system and Leonardo da Vinci’s Anatomy.

As you’ve probably worked out by now, Touchpress has also done one on Shakespeare’s sonnets, the whole 154 of them. It was released back in 2012 but I only bought it a year or so ago, when I decided it was time I became more familiar with this part of his oeuvre. So far I’ve only dipped into it, but have decided it’s worth posting on it now, rather than wait until I’ve finished it.

SHAKESPEARE SONNETS APP MENUSo this is an introduction rather than a proper review. The app follows a similar format to that used for Eliot, with some variations due to the work itself, and its age and particular history. It comprises the following menu items:

  • All 154 Sonnets in text form
  • Performances, by different people, such as Jemma Redgrave, David Tennant, and Stephen Fry, of each sonnet (filmed performances with the text synced to it)
  • Facsimile reproduction of the first published edition of the sonnets in 1969
  • Perspectives, that is, commentary on the sonnets, including their form, history and Shakespeare’s use of them, by various academics/Shakespearean scholars, such as Katherine Duncan-Jones, James Shapiro, Don Paterson – filmed talks, with transcript of the text.
  • Notes, that is, Arden’s detailed notes on each sonnet, including notes on individual lines.
  • Arden’s scholarly Introduction
  • Favourites, which as you’d assume allows users to save and share – yes – their favourites.

There is a Home icon so you can quickly return to the menu screen to navigate around the app. And there are also well thought through navigations. For example, on the screen containing the straight text of the sonnet are icons linking directly to the Notes, the filmed reading of the sonnet, and the Facsimile version. If you then  choose Notes, you get three tabs – Arden Notes (explanation of allusions and idioms, definitions of obsolete words, and the like), Commentary (critique) and My Notes (make your own notes).

As with all Shakespeare – given the unfamiliar-to-us language of his time – the sonnets come to life when read by people who know what they are doing.  You can read them in order, or navigate easily to particular sonnets. You can also read/hear them by performer, as when you touch a performer’s image up pops a windows listing the sonnets they perform.

Anna Baddeley, reviewing the app for The Guardian says

The Sonnets app, like its older sister The Waste Land, has the power to awaken passions (in my case, Shakespeare and poetry) you never knew you had. Reading outside and trying vainly to shield my iPad from the glare, I prayed the sun would go in so I could see what Don Paterson had to say about Sonnet 129.

Paterson’s commentary is the best thing about this app. It’s like sitting in the pub with a witty, more literary friend, who uses language such as “mind bouillabaisse” and “post-coital freak-out”. Most fascinating is his emphasis on the weirdness and borderline misogyny of the sonnets, a view echoed by the other academics interviewed for the app.

I don’t know Don Paterson, whom Wikipedia tells me is a Scottish poet, writer and musician, but Baddeley is right – in the sense that his commentaries are fresh, engaging, personal, funny and yet also meaningful. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re the best thing about the app, because it’s the whole that is important, but they certainly give it life.

This is not something to read in a hurry, and it is a BIG app, but how wonderful it is to have these sonnets so readily available on my iPad wherever I go.

Have you used this app, or would it interest you?

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s sonnets
iPad app
The Arden Shakespeare, Touch Press and Faber and Faber, 2012

Monday musings on Australian literature: Sisters in Australian fiction

May 15, 2017

Sara Dowse, As the lonely blyYesterday I posted my review of Sara Dowse’s novel As the lonely fly, which centres on the lives of three sisters (well, primarily, two sisters, and the daughter of the other sister), and today, playwright Joanna Murray-Smith mentioned another book about sisters, Shirley Hazzard’s The transit of Venus, when giving her Top Shelf on Radio National’s Books and Arts Daily program. It got me thinking about novels which feature sisters – and I realised that some of our best-loved classics deal with them. Think Jane Austen’s Pride and prejudice and Louisa May Alcott’s Little women, for a start. And, I can’t resist mentioning, though it’s not a novel, that infamous play, King Lear!

So, I thought it would be fun to talk about sisters in (Australian) fiction, about novels in which the sister relationship plays a significant role in the story. I have read all the books I mention here, but most of them before I started this blog, unfortunately.

Ada Cambridge’s Sisters (1904), which I read over three decades ago, now tells the story of four well-to-do sisters at a time when marriage was seen as women’s only option. She explores – unsentimentally – what this means for the sisters, who have to decide whether to marry for money, for love or not at all. By focusing on the experience of women from one family, by setting their decisions against each other, Cambridge is able to keep her exploration of matrimony tightly focused. I like Cambridge for similar reasons that I like Austen, her clear, somewhat acerbic eye on how social conventions can limit people’s real options.

In Sara Dowse’s As the lonely fly (2017), the three sisters, Frieda, Clara and Manya, have a somewhat awkward relationship, but then they face awkward times. They represent different responses to the same problem, increasing anti-Semitism and the resultant pogroms in their homeland. All migrate, but at different times and/or to different places, and with, significantly, different goals. They have a sense of responsibility for each other, but don’t always understand each other’s decisions. Their sisterly relationship provides a natural, organic basis upon which Dowse can explore various responses and outcomes. This might sound mechanistic, but it isn’t. The sisters live and breathe too – and I cared deeply about them, particularly Clara!

Elizabeth Harrower The watch towerA different sisterly relationship occurs in Elizabeth Harrower’s The watch tower (1966) (my review). Laura and Clare are effectively abandoned by their parents when they are young. There’s seven years between them, so the relationship is driven partly by Laura feeling a sense of responsibility for her sister and also by her not having some of the opportunities afforded her younger sister. It’s a close relationship, and as Laura’s life starts to unravel, Clare tries her hardest to make Laura see what is happening, while not getting caught up in it herself. It’s a chilling study of misogyny, of power and control, but one in which the sisterly relationship provides a source of support.

Shirley Hazzard’s The transit of Venus (1980) also deals with two sisters, Carolyn (Caro) and Grace Bell, and follows them for several decades. Orphaned when young, the girls move to England where they form relationships, and marry. The story mainly follows Caro, and I’m afraid I can’t recollect a lot about how their relationship is depicted, though I seem to remember it is supportive but also reflects those frustrations between sisters who choose different courses in their lives. Joanna Murray-Smith in her Top Shelf statement talked about loving the way Hazzard tells how the sisters’ lives “intersect over a lifetime”.

Elizabeth Jolley, An accommodating spouseElizabeth Jolley’s An accommodating spouse (1999) deals with a relationship that’s a little odd, which won’t surprise you if you know Jolley. It’s about a rather eccentric professor who is married to a woman, Hazel, who happens to be a twin. The twin sister, Chloë, lives with them, and the situation works, largely because there is an accommodating spouse (though who this is and how might not be what you think). Towards the end, after a disturbing event, the Professor

is sorry that his own agitation during the party will have been a burden on Hazel and on Chloë. He comforts the thought with the real fact that Hazel and Chloë always shared misfortune, so only shared half each, of any difficulty.

This is so Elizabeth Jolley to have a character justify himself that way!

Olga Masters’ Loving daughters (1984) reminded me, when I read it back in the 1980s, of Jane Austen – not just because it has a traditional marriage plot-line but because it is set in a small community and has some of Austen’s wicked wit. I remember laughing at the image of the young curate riding around town, while he pondered which sister should he marry – the lively, fun one or the practical, nurturing one. The book, though, is more serious than this comment suggests – and deals, like Austen does, with the way social rules and expectations impinge upon lives and the decisions people make. The sisters’ relationship is affected by both their different personalities and the pressures they find themselves under.

It’s interesting – though perhaps not surprising – that these books, with the exception of Sara Dowse’s, deal in some way with marriage. These are not romances so it’s not because the authors are focusing on marriage as the goal of women’s existence. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite, it’s that they question, in some way, society’s assumption that getting married and being a wife is the nub of women’s lives, or they tease out the implications for women of being married. I wonder if we’d find any trends in a selection of books about brothers?

Anyhow, do you have any favourite books about sisters?

(Oops, I finished this in time for a Monday post, and forgot to hit the SCHEDULE button! So, most of you anyhow have this week’s Monday Musings on Tuesday)

Sara Dowse, As the lonely fly (#BookReview)

May 14, 2017

Sara Dowse, As the lonely blySome books grow out of their author’s desire to engage the reader in an issue they feel passionate about, such as Jane Rawson on climate change in A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (my review) and Charlotte Wood on the scapegoating of women in The natural way of things (my review). Sara Dowse’s latest book, As the lonely fly, falls into this category, but for Dowse the issue is the Israel-Palestine problem, the “rightness” or otherwise of establishing a Jewish state. This doesn’t mean, however, that books so inspired are boringly earnest or stridently polemical. It’s a risk, of course, but in the hands of good writers, like the three mentioned here, issues are turned into stories that engage us, while simultaneously raising our consciousness.

Unlike Rawson and Wood’s more dystopian novels, Dowse uses historical fiction, with a hint of mystery/thriller, to explore her ideas.  The novel is set in the first half of the twentieth century, and follows the lives of two Russian-Jewish sisters, Clara and Manya, and their niece, Zipporah. We start, theoretically at least, with Clara (who changes her name to Chava when she arrives in Palestine), but are immediately introduced to her younger sister Manya (who had migrated to the US with their parents and who becomes Marion).  Niece Zipporah, the committed Zionist who followed Clara to Palestine, opens Part Two.

The story is divided into 6 parts in fact, the first labelled “Clara begets Chava 1922-1925” and the last “Tikkun? 1967” (“tikkun” being, significantly, a Hebrew word for “fixing/rectification”). The narrative has an overall forwards momentum, but the chronology is not linear and the perspectives change. Following all this requires an alert reader, but it enables Dowse to fill in backstories at the relevant moment (such as Clara’s experience of the 1905 Odessa uprising) and to link various characters and ideas. Her goal is to explore the difficult situation confronting Eastern European Jews in the early 20th century and the concomitant creation of Israel. In so doing, Dowse raises bigger questions about idealism and justice, and exposes the challenges of migration, particularly of migration that is politically charged.

While Part One is labelled 1922-1925, the first chapter is headed “Marion 1967”, ensuring an important, comparative, role for the American experience. However, the bulk of this part tells of socialist Clara/Chava’s early days working to create a new Jewish state. It’s not long before the hard-working Chava starts to question what they are doing, to see the difference between the political Zionism of Herzl and the cultural (or spiritual) one of Ahad Ha’am. She starts to agree with Ha’am, as she writes to Marion,

that there shouldn’t even be a state like the one Herzl advocated, but a centre in Palestine where Jews reconnect with our culture and from there would disseminate it through the Diaspora. That the land wasn’t empty as Herzl had us believe, that it would be difficult to find land that wasn’t already cultivated, and the Arabs wouldn’t be overjoyed about the space we’d taken up in what happened to be in their land too. Or ecstatic about losing their jobs. The Marxist in me is increasingly uneasy about this … (Pt 2, Ch. 11, Uncorrected proof copy)

If you are an Australian, this idea of taking up space that’s not empty will resonate, as I’m sure Dowse intends it to do!

… too much head …

Eventually Chava finds occupying this already occupied land too difficult and, after supporting an Arab uprising, willingly returns to Russia where, unfortunately, she finds anti-semitism on the rise. Meanwhile, Zipporah provides a foil to Chava, retaining her commitment to the Zionist ideal, albeit seeing the trauma that can be caused by commitment to a political idea. The story of her student, Talli, provides this insight. Dowse, in other words, provides no easy answers, but forces us to face, through stories of real human beings with whom we fully engage, the complexity of the situation.

Chava meets in Jerusalem, a cobbler, Ha-Kohen, a spiritual rather than a political Hebrew man. He says to her:

You and your chaverim, those pals of yours, can you really believe all those things you read? It’s all from the head. And the source of all evil on this earth is too much head, my dear, and not enough heart. (Pt 2, Ch. 10, Uncorrected proof copy)

A little more empathy, in other words, is what is needed.

As the lonely fly could be described as a family saga. There are many characters besides the three women I’ve introduced here – including another sister (Zipporah’s mother) and her family, various friends and colleagues, and a love interest or two – and the novel spans six decades from 1905 to 1967. There’s also a thriller element including some espionage, and a nod to the mystery genre too. What is wrong with Talli, and what does happen to Clara? Through these Dowse explores her themes while involving us in real lives – via lovely domestic details of rooms, meals and close relationships, and vivid descriptions of place. By the end of the novel I was deeply engaged with her characters and their dilemmas, whether or not I agreed with all their decisions.

… the passion for justice …

Manya/Marion is a somewhat more shadowy character than Clara and Zipporah, and yet, as the one who migrated to America, the land of the free, she provides an important counterbalance to the lives of the other two. On the surface, her ambition to be an actor, and her oh so western focus on colouring her hair, on “the showering, the creaming, the makeup’, are as “exasperating” to us as they are to Zipporah, but she is the character who opens and closes the novel, so we need to heed her. Her idealistic, bookish husband, Sidney, dies a very American death, and leaves her with two young sons. It provides a counterpoint to the high drama that was occurring in Israel.

In the loneliness of her later years, she finds herself still struggling to understand him, but she comes to see that both his and Clara’s idealism was really “a passion for justice”. In the book’s final chapter, she and Zipporah, whom she visits in Israel, attend a Hebrew performance of a favourite play of hers, O’Neill’s The iceman cometh. Now, I don’t know this play – besides knowing of its existence – but I presumed Dowse had chosen it for a reason, so I checked Wikipedia. It told me that the play’s main themes are the self-deceptions, the pipe-dreams – the lies, in other words – that we tell ourselves to keep going. The play references, apparently, political ideals such as anarchism and socialism. Certainly, Clara discovers her socialist ideals being undermined when the factory managers in Soviet-era Moscow start employing capitalist techniques to increase production. However, I’m sure Dowse intends us to read O’Neill’s theme in terms of how we behave today – in relation to Israel/Palestine and to all the other injustices that we see around us, but try to justify away.

The past is not, in fact, the burden we thought, says Zipporah to Marion. It’s the future we need to worry about. Like all good ideas novelists, Dowse has not bombarded us with answers but, instead, has intelligently and compassionately given us plenty to think about.

aww2017 badgeSara Dowse
As the lonely fly
For Pity Sake Publishing, 2017
327pp. (Uncorrected proof edition)
ISBN: 9780994448576

To be published: June 2017

(Advanced review copy courtesy For Pity Sake Publishing)