Monday musings on Australian literature: Jessica Anderson

Every now and then I feature a specific writer in my Monday Musings – and they’ve usually been women because they tend to be overlooked. Take Jessica Anderson (1916-2010), for example. Most keen AusLit readers will know her because her novel Tirra lirra by the river made quite a splash when it was published in 1978, but my sense is that her “fame” doesn’t go much past this.

She is, however, one of our great writers:

  • She won the Miles Franklin Award award, twice: Tirra lirra by the river in 1978, and The impersonators in 1980.
  • The impersonators also won the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award in 1981.
  • Her book of short stories, Stories from the warm zone and Sydney stories, won The Age Book of the Year in 1987.
  • Tirra lirra by the river was included in Australian classics: 50 great writers and their celebrated works, by Jane Gleeson-White.
  • Tirra lirra by the river was also included in the admittedly eclectic, but international, The modern library: The 200 best novels in English since 1950, by Carmen Callil and Colm Tóibín
  • She is taught in many university (and, I believe, high school) literature courses.
  • She’s a good example of a late bloomer, with her first novel, An ordinary lunacy, being published when she was 47.

An ordinary lunacy was, in fact, published in England, having been rejected by Australian publisher, Angus and Robertson. Gleeson-White quotes Anderson saying that she didn’t think Australian publishers in the 1960s would like her novel about “how a utilitarian society treats those with unserviceable gifts”. Ouch!

Of course, like most late bloomers, Anderson had been writing long before she was first published. It was probably the increased focus on women stemming from the second wave of feminism in the 1970s which resulted in authors like her getting their chance. There’s that fashion thing again, eh? But this doesn’t mean that she didn’t deserve it. Beatrice Davis, one of the Miles Franklin judges, said that Tirra lirra by the river “has an unpretentious elegance, an individual quality so different from the realistic documentary that still dominates the field in Australian novels”. Here is the opening sentence:

I arrive at the house wearing a suit – greyish, it doesn’t matter. It is wool because even in these sub-tropical places spring afternoons can be cold. I am wearing a plain felt hat with a brim, and my bi-focal spectacles with the chain attached. I am not wearing the gloves Fred gave me because I have left them behind in the car, but I don’t know that yet.

I love this opening, which introduces us to the narrator, Nora Porteous, late in her life, as she returns “home” after many decades away. It’s so precise, and yet with tantalising hints of uncertainty. Oh dear, as I pick it up, I feel I want to read it all over again and follow Nora as she reviews her life, and the decisions she made in search of “her place”, only to end up back where she started, thinking, processing and wondering.

Most of Anderson’s work was contemporary, but she did write one historical novel, The commandant (1975), which she calls her favourite. I reviewed it as part of Sydney University Press’s Australian Classics Library. Like Nora in Tirra lirra, the main character here, Frances, is not in her “place”. She’s with family, but her views, her aspirations, are different to those around her. She must navigate this family, this society, to develop her self.

According to Gleeson-White, Anderson greatly admired the novelist, Henry Green (recently featured by Stu at Winston’s Dad) for his “poetic brevity”. I think this brevity is partly what draws me to Anderson. Stories of women feeling at odds with their lot are not, after all, unusual, but it takes some skill to cover several decades in less than 150 pages, as Anderson does in Tirra lirra. Anderson was also, says Gleeson-White, inspired by Christina Stead for showing her “there was an Australian background I could use: the urban background of For love alone“. I’d love to understand this a little more … what was it about Stead’s urban background that differed from that of other Australian writers?

Near the end of Tirra Lirra, Nora says:

I find myself thinking that we were all great story-tellers at number six. Yes, all of us, meeting in passages or assembling in each other’s quarters or in the square, were busily collating, and presenting to ourselves and the other three, the truthful fictions of our lives.

“Truthful fictions”. An intriguing concept that we can read several ways … but that is for another day. In the meantime, I commend Jessica Anderson to those of you who haven’t read her. Meanwhile, I must read her One of the wattle birds which has been languishing on my TBR for far too long.

Note: This post is not a review for the Australian Women Writers 2012 challenge, but I plan this year to write a number of posts supporting the challenge’s promotion of Australian women writers … which is not a hard ask given my reading priorities!

24 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Jessica Anderson

  1. I’m going to search the Minneapolis Public Library system for ‘Australian classics: 50 great writers and their celebrated works, by Jane Gleeson-White’, I’ve probably read quite a few including ‘Tirra Lirra’, but know I’m missing some such as that Johnston whose name keeps coming up and Tracy DiNiland. .

  2. I don’t know what differences, specifically, Anderson might have seen between Stead and other Australian writers, but the Australian suburbs in For Love Alone are a place where a character can suffer huge emotions and go through hallucinatory phantasmagorias, and they can also find themselves stranded there, and dried out. (The lead character Teresa is the one having the huge emotions; her peers and siblings are the ones drying out or betraying themselves, and the reader can see them as her object lessons.) It might have been that combination that set Anderson off.

  3. Interesting post as usual, though you shame me once again! I loved the beginning sentences and mood too, really makes me want to sit down and read now. Just have to stop this writing and mothering business.

  4. I very much like the term “truthful fictions”. I still remember feeling mindboggled when Ian talked about my blog-writing as creative writing, and was adamant that writing about my life could still be creative writing, even if nonfiction.

  5. I read Tirra Lirra by the River in January and loved it. I was very taken with Nora as a character. I I definitely see an Australian literature reading project coming on and soon. That would be thanks to you and Lisa :).

      • Gummie: I looked up Jessica Anderson on Amazon and they have her as Jessica Andersen. There’s a Jessica Andersen who writes a lot of other sort of books–romantic, so a bit of a mix up there. Have you read An Ordinary Lunacy?

        • Naughty Amazon! They need a good librarian! No, I’ve only read Tirra lirra and The commandant. I was thinking a good project might be to read the debut novels of some of my favourite Aussies … As if I needed a project! But I am intrigued by An ordinary lunacy.

  6. I have read three Jessica Anderson’s novels. Tirra, Tirra, An Ordinary Lunacy (love the title), and The Last Man’s Head. In my book journal I have written Very Good beside them. I also read Snake by Kate Jennings, and though a sad read a very good read. Australia has lots of good authors, and I am glad to say most of the time I can pick up Australian books in second hand shops.

    • Thanks Meg … An ordinary lunacy is a great title isn’t it. I agree re second hand bookshops. I have a couple of favorites that I know there’s a good chance I’ll find what I’m looking for. Glad you liked Snake too.

  7. Truthful fictions is a great term. I guess its counterpart is fictional truths, but somehow that doesn’t quite fit what I conceive as memoir writing that uses fictional techniques to embody and vitalise memories.

    I confess I haven’t read any Jessica Anderson! I look forward to my next trip to Sydney, and a vist to some second hand bookshops. I’m told Berkelouw’s in Newtown is wonderful, and they do a great red lentil soup.

    • Thanks Christina, and sorry for the delay in replying as I was on the road when this came in and let it slip on my return. Glad you like the term … I like it too. I like the recognition that fiction can (does!) convey truths … but I agree that the converse term doesn’t quite work. Funny that, really.

      Do read Anderson … I can’t imagine you wouldn’t like her, from what I’ve read of your blog. I’ve been to Berkelouw’s in the Southern Highlands – great place but way too tempting!

  8. Sue, I’m back from the ‘reading doldrums” after being fully vaccinated! Feel like a heavy weight has been lifted from my shoulders. Time to get right back on the ‘proverbial horse’
    and settle into my Aussie reading saddle. Just finished Jessica Anderson’s Stories From The Warm Zone. (review on blog). Why is this book not on everybody’s reading list??
    It was wonderful!

    • Oh great to hear Nancy, in all ways. I have had my first shot. Second one next month, but of course we’ve never been at huge risk here.

      I’m so glad you liked that. I haven’t read it but I’ve read at least three Jessica Andersons and have loved them all.

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