It is hard to classify Langley’s most famous novel, The pea-pickers, which was first published in 1942. In some ways it fits into the coming-of-age genre but it is different from the more usual offerings in that genre, if only because there is no real sense at the end that the protagonist has come of age! It also has elements of the picaresque. Again, it’s not typical. The two sisters don’t travel far and wide, they don’t have many “big” adventures”, and it’s heavier in tone than the usual picaresque, but it is about two young women who set out to adventure partly to recover some of their lost history. A modern interpretation of the picaresque perhaps?
The novel is semi-autobiographical, and is told in first-person. Given that there’s not a very strong plot nor a strong sense of character development, it’s interesting that Langley chose the novel form for it rather than autobiography. She wrote it in the early 1940s, but based it on the journals and poetry she wrote during the time period in which the novel is set, the 1920s.
So what exactly is it about? The plot is pretty thin: two sisters dress as men and take men’s names, Steve and Blue, in order to work as agricultural labourers in Gippsland, the place their mother has told them about throughout their childhood and with which they feel they have a connection. The book chronicles their life and work over a few seasons, and particularly describes the people they meet along the way, including a couple of “loves” for Steve, the narrator.
Stylistically it is interesting. Her language is very poetic, and there is also a lot of specific poetry in it. It is quietly humorous. It is also quite declamatory – in an old-fashioned poetic sort of way. There are a lot of allusions, particularly to things classical. There is no real plot, no sense of growth for the main characters from the beginning to the end. All this makes it quite odd – a strange mix of old-fashioned (declamatory style, classical allusions, etc) with post-modern (disregard for traditional elements of the novel such as plot and character development).
Two lovely pieces of writing early in the book are:
Down I fell, in love. And what happened? In feeling, incidents pure beyond pens, anguished beyond all telling. In fact, incidents to the point of idiocy.
Then the elderly party with the severe yet insane look took the violin from Blue’s hand and stood beside the door with it, looking as though he were meditating on a dry spell that had brought crows flying around the sheep and mortgages flying around the mailbox, and on that violin he played, with an absent-minded hand, such tunes as Ulysses should have retorted to the harpies.
It’s interesting in terms of social history – the cross dressing, the racism (anti Italians in particular), the depiction of agricultural life of the time. It beautifully evokes 1920s rural Victoria, portraying both the characters who populated it and the sort of small-scale agriculture that was going on.
Cross-dressing or women dressing “mannishly” was a bit of a common thread in nineteenth and early twentieth century Australia. Louisa Atkinson, back in the mid to late 1800s, was a botanist, illustrator, writer who wore trousers (particularly when she was out collecting her specimens) and shocked the locals in the Southern Highlands of NSW (Berrima/Bowral area), even though she conformed in terms of religiosity. Marie Bjelke Petersen (late 19th to mid 20th century) was described as mannish in dress when she was young – and I believe she wore pants. In addition, Marie Bjelke Petersen wrote the story “Jewelled Nights” which was turned into a film starring Louise Lovely in 1925. It is about a woman who dressed as a man. The film didn’t do wonderfully well at the box office. And then Edna Walling in Melbourne in the early 20s wore comfortable jodhpurs when she undertook the gardening and landscaping for which she was famous, leading local residents to call her ‘Trousers.”
So it seems that women did find pants more comfortable and wore them mainly for that reason. But, in this book there is also the issue of assuming a man’s guise to help them to find work. They didn’t try to completely hide their womanhood but they didn’t want to advertise it either. They used their male names in their application letter to get a hop-picking job. They also felt safer if they didn’t look obviously female when they were out and about.
In addition to the coming-of-age theme, the book also has other themes, such as love of land and dispossession from it:
Yes, I am from Gippsland, too. My family have been graziers here for many years. I should be the mother of sons who would be the princes of this province, in thought and action … But what am I? Well, you can see, A wandering pea-picker, living in a galvanised iron hut. But my forefathers were the pioneers here. And that is what is really hurting more than anything. I am nothing to Gippsland; I just wander through her, being hurt by her and used by her in menial toil.
The pea-pickers is a challenge. It seems fresh and innovative, thumbing its nose at many traditions of the time, but it also seems to go nowhere and can be self-consciously self-important. It is, nonetheless, an important part of Australia’s literary heritage and deserves wider reading.