Are there some historical periods that particularly fascinate you? There are for me, and one of those is that between the two world wars. It was a complex time encompassing both economic hardship and great social change. A time when many of those Victorian era constraints were being lifted and women, in particular, were starting to enjoy an independence and freedom they hadn’t had before the First World War. Dymphna Cusack’s first novel, Jungfrau, is set in this period and deals with this very subject.
I have written about Cusack before, when I reviewed A window in the dark, her memoir about her time as a teacher. Because of its relevance to this novel, I’ll reiterate a couple of the points I made in that review. Cusack, I wrote, had a finely honed moral and social conscience, and was acutely aware of injustice. She was convinced of the “wickedness of our economic system”, and abhorred the power those with money had over others. She was consequently outspoken on social and economic justice issues, and was particularly critical of the treatment of “that much-maligned creature, the woman teacher”. A window in the dark was written forty years after Jungfrau, and is a memoir, but you can see the genesis of her values and ideas in this, her first novel.
Jungfrau is set in Sydney over a few months in the 1930s. It concerns three young women in their mid to late twenties: the rational, realistic and religious Eve, the emotional, dreamy and vulnerable Thea, and the modern, pragmatic, confident Marc. Eve and Thea have been good friends for several years. Marc is Thea’s friend, but Eve and the free-thinking Marc do not like or understand each other. At the novel’s opening, Eve and Thea are talking about Thea’s interest in a man twice her age, a married university professor. Eve cautions Thea about the risks, but Thea is ready “to take life—use it—now, instead of letting it use me”. Eve gently retorts that “If you leave yourself open to the world, it will rush in on you”.
Indeed, Eve, who has seen first hand in her maternity ward the results of poor, single women taking life, suggests that experiencing life “is much safer in books”. She says to Thea:
When you talk about getting in touch with reality and finding out what life is, all you really mean is following your instincts in spite of the consequence … Only, if you take your friend Marc’s prattling literally, I’d advise you to learn more about physiology than you know at this moment. You can’t safely combine what your modern friends rather euphemistically call ‘experience’ with a degree of ignorance that’s almost mid-Victorian. You’ll need to be practical if you’re going to be a realist. Marc’s evidently both.
The novel, as you’ve probably guessed by now if the title hadn’t given it away, explores what happens when Thea does not heed Eve’s advice and lets this relationship develop. I’d call this a coming-of-age novel but, having been written by Cusack, its themes are as much social as psychological. What did it mean for a woman at that time to have an affair with a married man, and what were her options with the – hmm – consequences?
The trouble is that while obstetrician Eve and social worker Marc are daily faced with the grim realities of life, teacher Thea evades them. Here’s Eve on her ward rounds,
All this rot about reality, this frenzied escape into abstractions, had curiously little to do with life as she knew it. … Here was reality. Tortured bodies, tired minds, birth and death. Nothing vague about this; no escaping from facts; no sheltering behind fancies.
Acerbic Marc has her own view on woman’s lot:
Women are cursed, all right. If you wither on the virgin stem you go all pathological; if you go off the deep end you get some foul disease; and if you marry and have dozens of young you die of exhaustion.
By contrast, here is Thea discussing the real Jungfrau with her professor:
“Yes,” he said almost inaudibly, “white, proud and untouched. But they’ve built a funicular almost to the top of it now, and the tourists swarm all over it like flies.”
“Poor thing! I don’t mind climbers and mountaineers; but it must hate the tourists soiling it—”
“That is usually the fate of the proud and the untouched,” he said, digging his stick in the turf, and she recoiled as though struck, her hands flung out in a gesture of defence.
Oh dear, we readers think – and so would Eve and Marc if they’d heard this conversation. Their lot, though, is to love Thea and to watch in dismay as she takes life to an edge that she is not fit to handle.
The critical thing about this book is that Cusack doesn’t judge these three women for their choices. We might find Marc a more sympathetic, more appealing personality, of the three, but Cusack is even-handed. She understands human psychology and empathises with women. Her ire is focused more on society’s expectations and rules than on any one woman’s decision or behaviour. I described this novel earlier in my review as a coming-of-age novel, but it could equally be called a novel of ideas. In it Cusack exposes “the reckless squandering of human possibilities”, of lives “anaesthetised by half-baked education, political platitudes and doles”. Economic inequities, abortion, women’s independence, and the meaning of freedom are her targets.
I read this book as part of my long-term plan to read classic Australian literature – and I enjoyed it immensely. While the social milieu is very different from now – thank heavens – the emotional truths transcend the particulars of time and place. The language did feel a little overblown at times. It has that DH Lawrence sort of emotional intensity that can sometimes be a little too melodramatic, or declamatory, for my 21st century ears. And yet, paradoxically, one of the novel’s real pleasures came from its descriptions of Sydney. Cusack catches the landscape – the plants, the light, the water – beautifully (but I’ll save sharing a couple of those for a Delicious Descriptions post).
I imagine this was a confronting novel at the time of publication, but I hope it got people thinking, as Cusack surely intended. Cusack, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Miles Franklin, Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw, to name the best known from that era, were fierce and intelligent writers. We are lucky to have them.
Note: I do need to have a little whinge. There were several errors/typos in my kindle edition, which is disappointing and did spoil the read a little.