Mena Calthorpe’s novel The dyehouse was, as I wrote in a post last year, Text Publishing’s choice for its 100th Text Classic, which surely says something about its quality or worth, wouldn’t you think? And yet, as Lisa (ANZLitLovers) pointed out in her post, it is not mentioned in recent books discussing the history of Australian literature, such as Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library and Jane Gleeson-White’s Australian Classics.
However, it is listed in bibliographic and encyclopaedic works like Debra Adelaide’s Australian women writers: A bibliographic guide, Joy Hooton and Harry Heseltine’s Annals of Australian literature, and William Wilde, Joy Hooton and Barry Andrews’ The Oxford companion to Australian literature. It has also captured the attention of others, including Introduction-writer Fiona McFarlane (whose The night guest I’ve reviewed here). She writes of coming across a secondhand copy in a Sydney bookshop and says that she’d never heard of Mena Calthorpe, but as soon as she’d read the opening sentences, she decided to buy it. I can understand that. I would have too.
Now, before I get to the book, I’m going to bore you a little more with what people have or haven’t said about the book. In my above-linked 100th Text Classics post, I noted that while most reviewers were favourable, one from my city’s paper was less so. S/he, RR, called it “badly written and pretentious”, though conceded that if Calthorpe focused on “telling a story simply, economically, and honestly” she could be “a force … on the Australian literary scene”. Marian Eldridge, reviewing a reprint in the same paper, two decades later, had quite the opposite opinion. She praised Calthorpe’s “spare, clear prose and jaunty dialogue”, and called the book …
“a fine example of the social realist genre”
Well, I’m with McFarlane and Eldridge. The book got me in from its first paragraph, and I enjoyed it immensely. It is, what Lisa would call, a book that matters because its subject is, to put it broadly (and baldly!), the impact of capitalism-at-all-costs on workers. That could make for a dry, didactic book, but Calthorpe’s writing and characterisation bring the story to life. Her political message is unavoidable but it’s tempered by a cast of believable people (ranging from the cold chairman-of-the-board to the lowliest labourers), a well-controlled story that contains tragedy and romance without turning into melodrama, and writing that’s fresh and lively.
I’ll start with the writing first. The novel starts in 1956 and takes place over about a year. It’s told third person, in short chapters which move between the many, but not hard to keep track of, characters. It starts with Miss Merton arriving at the Dyehouse and meeting the on-site boss, Mr Renshaw. In chapter 2, we meet the Chairman of the Directors Harvison, the General Manager Larcombe, and Company Secretary Cuthbert. They’re discussing problems in the Dyehouse: it’s not keeping up with production. We quickly get a sense of the characters of these three men. Harrison’s lips tighten as he wonders “Where’s the firing squad?” Larcombe is ineffective – wary, unexciting, and full of excuses – while Cuthbert is “sharp-featured, pleasantly mannered”. We soon learn that he has some humanity, some empathy, but too easily lets his accounting distract him from troubling people issues. Then, in the same chapter, we shift to the General Office, and this (which McFarlane loved too):
Clack! Clack! Up came the carrier and ejected papers onto Mr Dennet’s table. There they lay: the Fanfolds! the Ledger Copies!
Mr Dennet took up his pen and began entering into the Control Book. The Comptometers sprang to life. Two young women with painted nails fell upon the papers.
Tic-tac, tic-tac. Now over to the files.
OK, Miss Brennan, you sort them out. City, Country, Government. Now break them up. A to K, L to Z, and then into the files with them.
There are other short interludes like this – a paragraph on worker Barney running for the morning train, for example – which break up the rhythm and convey the life better than any straight descriptive text could do. I have no idea what RR was thinking. Pretentious? No! Instead, I’d agree with McFarlane’s description of it as “formally experimental … with its episodic structure and its restrained lyricism … its playful attention to sound.” It all makes for delicious reading.
“The trap’s set for us all” (Miss Merton)
Next, the well-controlled story. Told over a year, Calthorpe explores how the Dyehouse manages with its production crisis. We see Renshaw scapegoating the skilled, experienced but not certificated Hughie, moving him from his beloved dye-room to working on the vats. We also see Renshaw sexually preying on pretty young women in his employ, including the initially gullible Patty. We see the workers, their lack of security – those on “Staff” versus those brought in as needed – and their struggle to sustain their lives. We see the bosses turning a blind eye to the struggles of their people, or, not even noticing these struggles. We see nascent attempts to “organise” for better conditions. Along the way there’s an unplanned mid-life pregnancy, a tragic death, physical assaults and sexual abuse. The novel is nicely structured, beginning and ending with the calm, mature Miss Merton.
All this might suggest that the characters are stereotypical, designed simply to serve the “idea” but, while they do serve the idea, they come across as real, authentic human beings. Larcombe and Cuthbert, for example, are not simple villains. They are, in Larcombe’s case, for example, a bit lazy, a bit self-protective, a bit uncertain, resulting in his being a bit ineffective! Even the biggest villain of the piece, Renshaw, is shown to to have the odd ounce of humanity. Similarly, the workers. Hughie, Barney, Patty, Miss Merton and Oliver Henery, to name a few, are all rounded out with succinctly presented backstories, which establish their authenticity while also adding depth to the plot.
It is, essentially, an ensemble cast, but the stories of two characters primarily carry the plot – Hughie (whose love of his job “had given purpose and dignity to his labour”) and Patty (a naive young women who believes Renshaw will marry her, until she discovers otherwise).
The ending, which I won’t give away, is inspired, striking the right balance between realism and hope.
I really can’t recommend this book enough. It slots well into other books exploring the struggles of the working poor of the early post-war period, like Ruth Park’s Harp in the South series. And it is a thoroughly engaging read which is relevant today, not only because its humans reflect universals of human behaviour as well as the life of the period, but because we are currently seeing new threats to worker security which ensures that this book’s concerns do not feel dated. A worthwhile read on multiple counts, in other words.
(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)