Mena Calthorpe, The dyehouse (Review)

Mena Calthorpe, The dyehouseMena 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!
The Debits!
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.

Mena Calthorpe
The dyehouse
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2016 (Orig. pub. 1961)
ISBN: 9781925355758

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

25 thoughts on “Mena Calthorpe, The dyehouse (Review)

  1. I love reprints of novels that are in danger of being forgotten. Virago classics perhaps the most famous of these series.

    • Oh yes Ian, Virago Classics were just inspiring when they started, weren’t they? Every bookshop I went into I looked for that spine to see if there was something new. Text too has a standard recognisable spine.

  2. Something I failed to mention in mine was that management at the dyehouse is patriarchal. Men run the show, even though Miss Merton is obviously smarter than any of them! I really hope that young people read this book, to show them what it was like from a feminist and a social PoV not so very long ago…

      • That’s right, I just absorbed it as an accurate reflection of how things were, but *chuckle* we oldies forget that that all-male management line-up would astonish young women today (and hopefully they wouldn’t put up with it). Another aspect that I didn’t deal with adequately was the creative yearnings of Hughie. Calthorpe doesn’t say so explicitly, but reading his love of creating new colours, she was not just showing how the whole business depended on the creativity of this unacknowledged and underpaid worker, she was also hinting, perhaps, that with different educational opportunities, he might have been an artist. I loved Hughie, his story was heart-breaking.

        • Yes, I’d say we both noticed it but didn’t articulate it, partly because all the gender stuff was so obvious to those of us who experienced it, we didn’t think to highlight it. Sometimes I do that in my posts – I don’t state the obvious but of course if you haven’t read the book you don’t necessarily know it’s the obvious!

          Hughie was a wonderful character, I agree – I decided to just make the point about him loving his job, and that that gave dignity to his labour. But you could certainly tease out both the creativity issue and the education versus experience one.

          The trouble is with good books that you can only focus on a couple of things – or write a treatise – so thanks for helping tease out more in the comments.

          Oh and his story was so particularly heart-breaking, wasn’t it, because Renshaw saw the error of his arrogant ways, too late.

    • No it’s interesting isn’t it, Bill, how there are still authors hidden out there. She’s in those books I listed but she wouldn’t stand out unless something or someone pointed her to you.

      And yes, I suppose in your business in particular you’d have the male management teams. BTW Saw you’ve posted your MA. Have had a shocker of a week in terms of commitments – rushing to go out now. Will check it later though – as you know I will!

      • My experience with medium sized firms is that they often depend on an older woman for all their administration, but as for letting her manage – no way Jose. I don’t have so much to do with big firms, mostly mining companies, and the number of women amongst the plant operators might be one in ten. That said, when geo daughter worked for BHP as a graduate, they did an excellent job of educating her as a manager.

        • Interesting observation Bill. Do you think places like BHP are happy to train women but when it comes to hiring or appointing them to senior management they fall back to what they (think) they know?

        • Well the short answer is I don’t know. But the impression I got was that they were working hard to make sure there was no glass ceiling. I asked ex-Mrs Legend and she agreed that most mangers in mining were men, but as it happens the manager at the mine she works at (an FMG iron ore mine) the mine manager is a woman just back from maternity leave.

        • The exception to the rule, perhaps?

          I was just thinking, when I asked the question, about unconscious bias where they might think they are assessing women equally but, unconsciously, they’re not.

  3. Sounds like a good choice for the top 100! It’s really hard for books of this sort to strike a balance but it sounds like this one does it well. Plus, the cover design is pretty 🙂

  4. Pingback: March 2017 Round-up: Classics and Literary | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

  5. Pingback: The Dyehouse: Mena Calthorpe | His Futile Preoccupations .....

  6. Thank you so much, Sue, for drawing my attention to this novel. I put it on the reading list for my U3A course on ‘Landmarks in Australian Literature’ this year, and it was very popular with my students. We had a lively discussion about it, as it raised a number of interesting issues, and your review was very helpful for my class notes. One of my students said her first job after leaving school in the 1950s was in a very similar dyehouse in, I think, Wangaratta. I’m very glad Text have brought it back into print.

    • Thanks for letting me know Teresa. I’m so glad that my post has led to more people reading the novel. I’m not surprised it led to a good discussion. (DO you lead the U3A class? If so, good for you.) You’ve convinced me that I really should encourage my reading group to do it.

      • Yes, I do lead the group, and have been doing so for nine years. I choose the reading list for the year (usually around some kind of theme), and each month I prepare a set of class notes with some background on the author and the book, plus a set of questions for discussion. The students get these notes about a week before the class meets. It’s a lot of work, but I enjoy doing it. The members are all retired, and they come from a wide range of backgrounds, but all are quite passionate about Australian literature.

        • That’s really wonderful Teresa. It’s something i feel I should do – one day perhaps. I can imagine it being really interesting but also a lot of work.

  7. Pingback: AWW Gen 3 Week | theaustralianlegend

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s