When I started reading Debra Adelaide’s latest novel The women’s pages I thought, “Oh yes, here’s another interesting story about women’s lives, how their options are limited, etc etc. I’ll enjoy this but I wonder why it was longlisted for the Stella?” And then, a few chapters in, I started to realise that behind this “interesting story about women’s lives” was a fine and witty intelligence that was playing games with me, that was exploring ideas about creativity and writing, that was looking at how life imitates art (or is it vice versa), as well as at the lives of women! Needless to say, by the end I was fully engaged, enjoying every word while I eagerly turned this woman’s pages.
The embarrassing thing is that I haven’t read Adelaide before – well, that is, I haven’t read her fiction before. I have read some of her non-fiction. Her Australian women writers: A bibliographic guide was groundbreaking and is still highly valuable, and the book of critical essays which she edited, A bright and fiery troop: Australian women writers of the nineteenth century, is a significant work. She also edited and introduced Dymphna Cusack’s A window in the dark which I’ve reviewed here.
But her fiction? I’ve been remiss, but no more, because The women’s pages sure has me intrigued. It starts off straightforwardly enough with protagonist Ellis being asked to a 10th wedding anniversary barbecue. Adelaide sets the scene perfectly. It’s the 1960s and Ellis is a young domestically-competent mother who’s not happy in her marriage. She can’t imagine still being married to her (albeit perfectly decent) husband for another 8 years. So far so good – I’m interested. Then, chapter 2 introduces us to “not yet forty” Dove from current times. She is grieving for her mother and, we discover, is writing the story about Ellis. From here, the chapters alternate Ellis and Dove’s story until around halfway through the book where they start to intrude a little on each other, where in the same chapter we find Dove musing on where Ellis’s story is going or on how Ellis is exerting “maddening autonomy” on her story! What is going on, we start to wonder?
So, as well as being a story – and an authentic story at that – about women’s lives, The women’s pages is also a metafiction about the art and process of writing fiction. Here, for example, is Dove with a sort of writer’s block:
But Dove had run out of ideas. When the baby was born, she had a fair idea, but exactly where, and how, resisted her imagination. Doubtless because she had no experience in this respect, she could not bring herself to visualise a pregnancy and the birth of a baby. She knew this was nonsense, if she were to call herself a writer of fiction, and that she needed to do something about this, even if it simply meant googling the subject.
Write what you know, or else research! I enjoy these sorts of mind-games played by authors; I don’t mind being reminded of the author’s hand.
However, while the metafiction thread is an important part of the novel, there are other threads or themes. Motherhood is a major one. Childbirth and childrearing feature, but the overriding idea is that of missing mothers, the silences about them, the gaps they leave. Ellis’s mother had left her when she was a baby, and Dove was adopted (by a loving mother, but …). A related thread is the new word to Ellis’s world, “feminism”. There are illegal abortions and adoptions, alongside women striving to develop careers. Ellis gets a job in the magazine industry. By the mid-1970s change is afoot. She senses “the whole country shifting around … with these tall god-like creatures [the Whitlams] in charge”, but she’s not fooled into believing “there was really such a thing as equality”. When she’s offered a promotion, her male boss tells her he expects “absolute commitment”, that is, there must be no “running off to get married, or taking time out to look after children”. Adelaide knows the decades of which she speaks, and her evocation of them is spot on.
Then there’s Adelaide’s exploration of imagination and invention, particularly in the metafiction thread. And this is where another important aspect of this novel comes into view – Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Brontë’s novel is introduced at the beginning of chapter 2, with Dove blaming it for her decision to write her novel about Ellis (whose name references Emily’s pseudonym Ellis Bell). The “gaps and shadowy images and half truths” in Wuthering Heights “had infected her [Dove’s] imagination” and out of it Ellis’ story emerged. For most of The women’s pages, Brontë’s novel acts as a sort of simmering undercurrent, surfacing every now and then, not always overtly, to impose an added layer on the narrative. But at the end, as Ellis’s complicated family background is finally revealed, it comes to the fore. We even have a Catherine, an Edgar and a Nell, but the parallels aren’t laboured.
Dove writes, around halfway through the novel, that
she had not meant to write the story of women, but that was how it had appeared, that was the only story in her head. The more she delved into the lives of her characters the more it was about missing or silent women and the more it seemed it was her job to find them and open their mouths and lay them across the pages. Ellis had stepped out of a longer story, one in which women were always grasping for some sense of authenticity, and in which mothers in particular were absent. Wuthering Heights had almost no mothers and certainly none whom you could say were good to any degree. They were all dead or dying, or simply blank spaces, unnamed and unacknowledged, as if their progeny – Heathcliff, Catherine, Hindley, Edgar, Nelly – had been produced by magic, or had just sprung up out of the earth …
I said in my opening paragraph that Adelaide’s writing is “witty”. I didn’t mean by this “funny”, though it is wryly amusing at times. No, I meant “knowing”, “astute”, “clever”. Adelaide’s development of Ellis and Dove’s story is beautifully controlled. The women’s pages could, in fact, be read as an expert’s guide on how to write a novel. More interesting to me, though, is the light it throws on the intense emotional investment novelists can make in their work, on the sometimes complex nexus between character and author:
What, Dove wondered, had she done? Or had she done it? Maybe it had happened exactly like this and she was merely recording the facts.
See what I mean? I imagine Adelaide had fun writing about Dove writing about Ellis.
This is a delicious read that engages both the mind and the heart, and has an ending that brings you up with a start. Yes, I can see why it was longlisted for the Stella.
(Review copy courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)