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Eve Langley, The pea-pickers

May 5, 2009

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.

and

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.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 26, 2009 6:00 am

    I read this a couple of years ago (with the OzLit group?), and yes, I found it odd too. It was out of print but I picked up a copy through BookMooch. I enjoyed reading about places that I know (Metung, Rutherglen) as they were in the 1920s, and there were some wonderful descriptions, but after a while it began to pall – too many quotations, and all that passionate angst of Steve’s!
    It does show how appallingly poor they were. They seemed to live on bran and honey or maize, and there was a fair bit of both scrounging and outright stealing. I found it interesting that they were indignant when the Italians demurred; it was because ‘Steve’ and ‘Blue’ felt that such migrants ‘owed them’ since it was their country that had given them a home.
    Steve was always at pains to assert her ‘virtue’ to offset the girls’ growing ‘reputation, but the pair of them had a rather elastic morality about other people’s property – even stooping so low as to burn Mrs Y’s chopping board for firewood while she was away.
    I wonder whether this view of the world was coloured by socialist views?

  2. whisperinggums permalink*
    May 27, 2009 8:00 am

    Yes I read it with the AusLit group then too (latish 2007??) – and have done a lot of fairly formal work on it for Wikipedia. It’s one of those books that has stayed with me so I decided to write it up on the blog. Is that cheating? I had my Mum’s old hardback…not first edition but still has its lovely though now some somewhat torn paper cover over the hard.

    Their values and attitudes were questionable that’s for sure. I can see how it would pall – it has that old-fashioned poetic declamatory style that’s quite self-indulgent in its way, but I found it so odd and so fascinating that I really rather liked it. That said, I’m not surprised that there are many books of hers lying around unfinished now – people couldn’t, I believe, make head nor tail of them.

  3. David Rofe permalink
    March 9, 2010 12:26 pm

    I found this book extraordinary for two reasons:

    I have never finished a book which I enjoyed less.

    I have never encountered a fictional character whom I would do more to avoid in real life. Steve the narrator is an intensely unlikeable person. What you and several other authors have referred to as self-deprecation I would call a deep vein of disingenuousness.

    I think that your description of the book is very generous and it would be wise to alert many readers to the fact that the poetry of the author (which is all through the novel) ranges from execrable to worse. In addition the book is long (my version is 317 pages of 8 point single spaced print) and it is a real slog.

    The only redeeming feature for me, was that the descriptions of the country through which the narrator travels are often very excitingly true, but even this has the downside that everything is described in such an intense and overwritten fashion that it palls when one reads more than four pages at a time.

    At it’s best I felt that the William Blake of Jerusalem had rewritten Henry Lawson, which can be exciting but very hard to keep reading. At it’s worst it is vile, racist, self-serving and incoherent.

    • March 9, 2010 3:06 pm

      Hi David, and thanks for commenting. I don’t think I need warn readers now, because you’ve done it well! I think your summation is pretty accurate really, just a little more extreme than mine! If you read other reviews I’ve written, you’ll discover than I do tend on the generous side. It’s just how I read, really.

      And, in a way, I wouldn’t want to put people completely off because I think it is a fascinating book by a very different woman (who clearly had a very challenging life). That’s not to say she should be read because she had a challenging life so much as she should be read because she is so unusual and rather confronting. Disingenuousness is in a way a little generous too isn’t it? Now I think about it, perhaps self-centredness is a better description! Intense is a good word to describe her and her writing too. Anyhow, it is one of those books that you don’t forget easily!

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  1. Eve Langley wrote two novels | theaustralianlegend

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