Capel Boake: Three short stories

Capel Boake, no date, presumed public domainHaving written about Capel Boake in my last Monday Musings, I couldn’t resist checking out some of her short stories. Bill’s AWW Gen 2 Week concluded yesterday, but I hope he’ll accept this post as a contribution.

Boake’s stories are easily accessible in Trove. In fact, I was spoilt for choice, so just picked three at random. By the time I’d edited three – that is, corrected the multiple OCR errors* – I felt I’d done my bit for a while and so stopped there. I can’t say whether my three chosen stories are representative of her whole output – she wrote many short stories and poems – but I’m assuming they are. All appear in newspapers – in the days when newspapers published short stories – and most were syndicated. This means the version I edited is not necessarily the original publication, but I decided not to spend time identifying this.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeThe three stories (linked to their newspaper text) are:

  • The brothers (Canowindra Star and Eugowra News, 9 January 1920): a brother returns from the war, under a cloud, having been accused by his father, before leaving, of stealing money from the family farm business. He hadn’t, but he’s not going to dob in who did.
  • The necessary third (The Australasian, 28 August 1926): a wealthy young man meets, on a steamship trip from South Africa to Melbourne, a not so well-heeled young woman, and her mother, who is ambitious for a good marriage for her daughter.
  • Jenny (Weekly Times, 21 June 1930): a poorer young woman, “a State child”, is helped by a young man to make her career as a world-famous dancer.

A propos my point above re syndication, “The brothers”, for example, was first published, according to the subscriber-only AustLit database, in The Australasian in 1919.

These are generally straightforward stories, which is not surprising given they were published in newspapers and therefore intended for a broad audience. They lack the punch of, say, Barbara Baynton’s turn-of-the-century stories, but they make interesting reading nonetheless.

Two of them are romances – or, what the Western Mail reviewer I quoted in Monday Musings called “sex stor[ies] created on conventional lines”. They draw on traditional tropes – the poor young woman with the pushy mother, and the poor young woman who becomes a star thought the assistance of a young man who loves her. And yet, these young women are not pawns, and they do exercise some agency. Paula (“The necessary third”) takes things into her own hands to protect her self-respect, while Jenny (“Jenny”) takes action to ensure that she gets what she really wants (even if what she really wants is traditional!)

The stories also provide some insight into the times. I was particularly intrigued by this comment in “Jenny”. It’s told through the eyes of the young man, and here he is watching her, now a world-renowned star, dance on her home stage:

Glancing at the absorbed faces around him, their parted lips and shining eyes, he saw she had the same effect on them. Release . . . release . . . their spirits were free for once from the tyranny of the mechanised age that had gripped the world with relentless fingers.

This, then, is not “bush realism”, but a commentary on the modern urban world. However, it was also written in 1930 – Capel Boake straddling Bill’s Gen 2 and Gen 3 periods.

A neglected woman writer

Capel Boake has been identified as one of three neglected women writers of the 1930s by Gavin De Lacy in the La Trobe Journal (vol. 83, 2009), the other two being Jean Campbell and ‘Georgia Rivers’ (pseudonym for Marjorie Clark). De Lacy says that while they were all prominent in the Melbourne literary scene in the 1930s, they have been, with the odd exception, overlooked in significant studies of Australian literature. (He’s right. I found little about Boake in my little collection of books.)

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, Boake did not write many novels. Painted clay (1917) was highly praised, but only two more novels were published in her lifetime – The Romany mark in 1923 and, 13 years later in 1936, The dark thread. De Lacy quotes a contemporary critic as saying The dark thread had some shortcomings which “constant practice in the novelist’s art might have been expected to overcome.” Another critic, Frank Wilmot (writing as Furnley Maurice), compared it with Dreiser’s An American tragedy. Nettie Palmer, however, said that it wasn’t “quite a Dreiser, as Furnley suggested … but it’s very respectable.” More interesting to us, though, is contemporary critic Susan Sheridan who argued that it

provides a salutary corrective to the bourgeois family sagas of the period.

Another reason for revisiting Boake in Gen 3!

De Lacy notes that Boake, Campbell and Clarke haven’t been revived as “forgotten authors despite the recent interest in Australian women writers”. Not only are most of their books long out of print, but are “virtually unprocurable in second-hand bookshops”. An option for Text Publishing perhaps”?

He offers various reasons for this, including publishing practices at the times, but he also says that the 1930s was a “radical literary and political decade” and these three women’s novels don’t quite fit “the prevailing orthodoxy and literary preoccupations and myths of the ’30s.” Also, he says, the writers who have been remembered were mostly Sydney-oriented and associated with the New South Wales section of the Fellowship of Australia Writers. Kerr, Campbell, and Clark belong to the same period, but they

were Melbourne authors, setting their novels in that city. They were among the earliest prewar Australian writers to fictionalise an urban environment, ignoring the bush as a theme, and preceding most of their better known contemporaries in writing about the city.

Including them in our study of the era would, as he says, deepen our understanding of the history of women writers (and, thence, I’d argue, of Australian literature.) Gen 3, here we come.

* The original image of “The brothers” is so bad that I was unable to fix all the errors – that happens sometimes in Trove, newsprint not being the best quality medium for preservation.

15 thoughts on “Capel Boake: Three short stories

  1. Well you’ve pushed one of my buttons! – the over emphasis in all Australian history, not just literary, on Sydney (eg. the anniversary of the foundation of Sydney being declared our ‘national’ day – good op.ed. in today’s Guardian).

    I plan to run Gen 3 week for the next two or three years, so by then we should have a good idea of the authors and of the trends in writing. I was going to say we need a new generation of enthusiasts to follow us in this study of our Lit. history but when you think who we already intersect with – Nathan Hobby, Jessica White, Narelle Ontivero spring to mind – perhaps there’s more interest in academe than I anyway, expect.

    • I thought that would get the Melburnians going… Not that I was aiming to. We Canberrans stand aside and watch! Seriously though, I see Thu s as a bit of swings and roundabouts… So much depends on who does the work and it seems like at that time much of the work was being done in Sydney, including lobbying politicians for support for writers.

      I’ll check out The Conversation. I subscribe but don’t always read every one.

      Running Gen 3 over 2 or 3 years sounds like a good idea.

  2. I found a Boake in Geoffrey Dutton’s Literature of Australia (1976 edition) but he was a poet called Barcroft Boake and he was part of the Bulletin’s Sydney stable. He also gets a mention in the PEN Anthology of OzLit, the Oxford Literary Guide to Australia and The Oxford Companion. The Oxford Companion’s brief listing for Capel Boake says she was Barcroft’s niece, born in Sydney but her novels are set in Melbourne, except for The Romany Mark.
    Varney’s Brief Take on OzLit has nothing to say about her, nor does Geordie Williamson’s Burning Library or Jane Gleeson-White’s Australian Classics. I don’t have Nettie Palmer, I wish I did.

    • Thanks Lisa. Yes, I mentioned her relationship to Barcroft Boake in last Monday’s Monday Musings on her. He committed suicide when he was pretty young.

      I found her in the Oxford Companion too, and I’m guessing she’s in Debra Adelaide’s bibliography. I didn’t check it because that’s just a list of books. AustLit have her too, but again that’s just basic, a brief bio then lists, as you know. I didn’t even look at Williamson or Gleeson-White as I assumed she wasn’t there! She’s not, for example, in Drusilla Modjeska’s Exiles at home which is right on this period!

      • Sorry I missed that about Barcroft… I did read your post but (as you can see) my comment was made late at night and I was brain dead after making that Hermitage slide show!

    • Oh, and Palmer mentions her first novel in two sentences… Calling it lumpy and uneven but noting that she’s given life to city characters not written about before – a point several contemporary reviewers made. I’d like to read Painted clay.

  3. Boake sounds like an interesting writer. It is really a good thing to find authors from the past who do not get enough attention. As you mention, unfornuately many women authors fall in the category.

    This time period was really the beginning of writers complaining about technology. There are so many examples.

      • I think the rediscovery of neglected old fiction must be one of the most rewarding aspects of publishing. Virago, your own Text series and Scotland’s Canongate classics all good examples of this kind of publishing. Sometimes it can really put a writer back on the map: Virago made the excellent Elizabeth Taylor a writer in print while Canongate made the almost forgotten Nan Shepherd (whose book on the Cairngorms is a classic of outdoor writing) a face that now adorns Scottish five pound notes!

        • Yes, I reckon it must be too, Ian… Virago did a magnificent job of bringing so many wonderful writers to light. Text seems to be succeeding. I know of Canongate but haven’t really closely followed what they are doing.

  4. Pingback: On the Road Again | theaustralianlegend

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