Having 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.
- 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.