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Bill curates: Eve Langley’s The pea pickers

May 29, 2020
Back in April, Karen of Booker Talk published a great series of posts on the A2Z of Bookblogging. One of those posts was on Updating Posts or, Breathing new life into old posts. Bill (The Australian Legend), as part of his generous plan to help me keep my blog alive during my time-challenged period, suggested taking up this idea and reposting some of my old blogs. Thus was born … Bill curates! I am so grateful. And now, I pass you over to Bill …
Bill curates will be an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.
Book coverMy first choice is Sue’s review of Eve Langley’s masterpiece The Pea Pickers. One day Australians will overcome their cultural cringe and realise that in Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life and Eve Langley’s mostly unpublished eleven journals and novels we have writing that should be ranked alongside Ulysses and Rembrance of Times Lost. That’s my opinion and not necessarily Sue’s, but I think she still ranks The Pea Pickers pretty highly, and while she says she might now have written this piece a little differently – it was in fact her first review – I think you’ll agree it stands the test of time.
Eve Langley, The Pea Pickers, first pub. 1942. Cover from Angus & Robertson 2nd ed. hardback, 1958
See also Bill’s posts about Langley:
  • Eve Langley Wrote Two Novels (here)
  • Wilde Eve, ed. Lucy Frost (here)
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My original post

It  is hard to classify Langley’s most famous novel, The pea-pickers, which was first published in 1942. In some ways it fits into the coming-of-age genre but it is different from the more usual offerings in that genre, if only because there is no real sense at the end that the protagonist has come of age! It also has elements of the picaresque. Again, it’s not typical. The two sisters don’t travel far and wide, they don’t have many “big” adventures”, and it’s heavier in tone than the usual picaresque, but it is about two young women who set out to adventure partly to recover some of their lost history.  A modern interpretation of the picaresque perhaps?

The novel is semi-autobiographical, and is told in first-person. Given that there’s not a very strong plot nor a strong sense of character development, it’s interesting that Langley chose the novel form for it rather than autobiography. She wrote it in the early 1940s, but based it on the journals and poetry she wrote during the time period in which the novel is set, the 1920s.

So what exactly is it about?  The plot is pretty thin: two sisters dress as men and take men’s names, Steve and Blue, in order to work as agricultural labourers in Gippsland, the place their mother has told them about throughout their childhood and with which they feel they have a connection.  The book chronicles their life and work over a few seasons, and particularly describes the people they meet along the way, including a couple of “loves” for Steve, the narrator.

Stylistically it is interesting. Her language is very poetic, and there is also a lot of specific poetry in it. It is quietly humorous. It is also quite declamatory – in an old-fashioned poetic sort of way. There are a lot of allusions, particularly to things classical. There is no real plot, no sense of growth for the main characters from the beginning to the end. All this makes it quite odd – a strange mix of old-fashioned (declamatory style, classical allusions, etc) with post-modern (disregard for traditional elements of the novel such as plot and character development).

Two lovely pieces of writing early in the book are:

Down I fell, in love. And what happened? In feeling, incidents pure beyond pens, anguished beyond all telling. In fact, incidents to the point of idiocy.

and

Then the elderly party with the severe yet insane look took the violin from Blue’s hand and stood beside the door with it, looking as though he were meditating on a dry spell that had brought crows flying around the sheep and mortgages flying around the mailbox, and on that violin he played, with an absent-minded hand, such tunes as Ulysses should have retorted to the harpies.

It’s interesting in terms of social history – the cross dressing, the racism (anti Italians in particular), the depiction of agricultural life of the time. It beautifully evokes 1920s rural Victoria, portraying both the characters who populated it and the sort of small-scale agriculture that was going on.

Cross-dressing or women dressing “mannishly” was a bit of a common thread in nineteenth and early twentieth century Australia. Louisa Atkinson, back in the mid to late 1800s, was a botanist, illustrator, writer who wore trousers (particularly when she was out collecting her specimens) and shocked the locals in the Southern Highlands of NSW (Berrima/Bowral area), even though she conformed in terms of religiosity. Marie Bjelke Petersen (late 19th to mid 20th century) was described as mannish in dress when she was young – and I believe she wore pants. In addition, Marie Bjelke Petersen wrote the story “Jewelled Nights” which was turned into a film starring Louise Lovely in 1925. It is about a woman who dressed as a man. The film didn’t do wonderfully well at the box office. And then Edna Walling in Melbourne in the early 20s wore comfortable jodhpurs when she undertook the gardening and landscaping for which she was famous, leading local residents to call her ‘Trousers.”

So it seems that women did find pants more comfortable and wore them mainly for that reason. But, in this book there is also the issue of assuming a man’s guise to help them to find work. They didn’t try to completely hide their womanhood but they didn’t want to advertise it either. They used their male names in their application letter to get a hop-picking job. They also felt safer if they didn’t look obviously female when they were out and about.

In addition to the coming-of-age theme, the book also has other themes, such as love of land and dispossession from it:

Yes, I am from Gippsland, too. My family have been graziers here for many years. I should be the mother of sons who would be the princes of this province, in thought and action … But what am I? Well, you can see, A wandering pea-picker, living in a galvanised iron hut. But my forefathers were the pioneers here. And that is what is really hurting more than anything. I am nothing to Gippsland; I just wander through her, being hurt by her and used by her in menial toil.

The pea-pickers is a challenge. It seems fresh and innovative, thumbing its nose at many traditions of the time, but it also seems to go nowhere and can be self-consciously self-important. It is, nonetheless, an important part of Australia’s literary heritage and deserves wider reading.

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Do any of you agree with Bill and me about this astonishing book?
33 Comments leave one →
  1. May 29, 2020 10:06

    Do you still think that there is not much character development? I think we get very close to Steve. And Blue and Jim are excellent supports.

    • May 29, 2020 10:25

      Oh dear, Bill, that’s asking. I’d have to fish out the book. Is it just that we get to know her more, or does Steve actually change? It’s a book with rereading. I wonder if I could get my reading group to do it as an Aussie classic. (Am at the hospital now, but Mum is sleeping.)

      • May 29, 2020 10:30

        We certainly get to know her more, but I think that as she falls in and out of love she also learns more about herself.
        For book group I’d be tempted to read Wilde Eve, which is all her writing but has more meat.

        • May 29, 2020 10:34

          Fair point Bill. Wish I could remember why I said that.

          I will put Wilde Eve on our little schedule suggestions list.

  2. May 29, 2020 12:03

    Thank you both for this review and reminder of this excellent Australian title. I am now about to reread it. All the best.

    • May 29, 2020 15:07

      Thanks Penelope. I need to reread it too. It’s a book that sticks with you, though, isn’t it?

  3. May 29, 2020 12:17

    LOL Bill, that could be the Kiss of Death to suggest that The Pea Pickers is comparable to Ulysses or Remembrance of Things Past. There would be heaps of people who would never want to read it because they don’t get on with James Joyce or Proust.
    Fortunately #PistolsAtDawn, TPP is IMHO nothing like either of them in form, style, content or theme!

    • May 29, 2020 13:00

      I read a serious argument once, about Such is Life and Ulysses, but of course I didn’t bookmark it. Murnane I think writes consciously after Proust. Langley is unique.

      • May 29, 2020 14:44

        I don’t remember the plot of Such is Life, so I’m prepared to concede that it could mirror the journey. But what makes Ulysses unique is the way that Joyce mimics/parodies different registers of writing, throughout the successive chapters of the book. So there’s biblical language, there’s newspaper language, there’s pub talk and so on, all framed within a hugely complex schematic design involving colours, symbols and so on. I know of absolutely nothing like it.
        And Murnane? He is adamant that there are no characters or settings in what he calls his ‘conceptual writing’. Proust’s masterpiece is full of characters and wonderful French settings. So while I remain open to being convinced otherwise, #PistolsStillDrawn I’m not conceding now.

        • May 29, 2020 15:23

          Haha Lisa … thanks for elaborating your case! But no pistols here please. We are in Australia!!

        • May 29, 2020 23:00

          SiL preceded Ulysses by a quarter of a century and, naive as it is, it may well be the first great modernist work. Name your second!

        • May 30, 2020 08:19

          I think I’ll let you two fight that one out. My brain is mush.

      • May 29, 2020 15:18

        Yes, that’s what I though you meant, her uniqueness.

        • May 30, 2020 14:07

          Sorry, Bill, I’ll have to fight on alone, I don’t know anyone else who’s read all four.
          Not unless they speak up now!

    • May 29, 2020 15:11

      Haha Lisa. I’ll see what Bill answers though my interpretation is that he’s likening then in terms of freshness or uniqueness or, perhaps, idiosyncrasy? It’s certainly not like them in length!

  4. May 29, 2020 12:21

    Not in response to The Peapickers – but the issue of women wearing trousers: Two things – In Japan – all women (the true farmers of Japan in many ways) working in the fields – wear trousers – “monpe” the older traditional style (with a traditional kind of spats)- as well as long sleeves and broad hats attached by a scarf affair – and maybe a kind of scarf-mask too to shade the face protect the skin from the sun. (Way before equivalent understanding here!)

    When my wife (then early love-interest) and I began our teaching careers in 1971 at Hay War Memorial HS – bitterly cold winter westerlies sweeping across the table-flat Hay Plains – she sought permission (those were the days) to wear long slacks! Not possible – said the ancient straight-backed be-suited Principal – adhering to some principle that came from goodness knows where. A week or two later he was away on official business – she and one or two other females on the staff (total staff about 24 – 11 of us “first-year out” another four or five in their second year of teaching) wore “slack-suits”. The sky did not fall in nor the earth open up beneath us all – and nothing more was said about yea or nay permission. Another principle was learnt. Don’t ask permission. It usually generates a negative – better to simply proceed and establish the precedence!

    To-day is the 71st anniversary of my appearance on Planet Earth! Currrently reading or dipping into about seven books Covid-19 has much to answer for – but having thanks to friends tracked down a copy of The Advancement of Spencer Button – devoured it. Written by “Brian James” the pseudonym of John Tierney (1892-1972 – whose father at Eurunderee on the edge of Mudgee – taught Henry Lawson. I packed gherkins on the Muller farm at Eurunderee – over the next farm fields was where Henry L had grown up. Ted Noffs (Wayside Chapel) was born in Mudgee – his German ancestors lived in the same place – Henry Lawson and Ted Noffs wrote of them. The Steinbergers and Roths and so on. He went on to teach – taught my father in the early 1940s – a comment on his report card in 1941 I think – and finished up his final teaching years as Headmaster of Homebush Boys where I taught some 30, 31 years later. He wrote a novel about that experience too. The Spencer Button is an amazing tale of the teacher preoccupation with inspections and lists and climbing the ladder to the Headmastership – or not – and all the vagaries of human character exposed by disguising an otherwise fiercely competitive striving – for what! Brilliant as those who have read it will know – published in 1950 by A&R. (Thrilling actually – from one who himself thank goodness totally lacked the advancement gene – preferring instead – he imagines – to be the best classroom teacher ever – seriously having himself on now! – though himself knowing and working with some of the best who found themselves hoisted up that same ladder!)

    • May 29, 2020 13:04

      It’s too long since I read Spencer Button to reply sensibly, though 18 years with my father as he clambered up the teaching ladder put me off it for life.
      I worry that people see Langley through her trousers. She never dressed as a man, but wore trousers as a matter of practicality and, as with the names, to be closer to the Australian Bush of legend.

      • May 29, 2020 15:20

        Oh, I do hope they don’t see her through her trousers Bill. It’s interesting social history and perhaps as ps suggests a fearless individualism but it says nothing about her writing.

      • May 31, 2020 20:30

        You are right Bill – and were I to read The Peapickers I wouldn’t even be picking up on the old-fashioned narrow perspective of what it might have been indicating – unless it was being pointed out – and then thinking of my wife and her in some senses courageous rebelliousness or how ridiculous to think it could have meant more than good common sense!

    • May 29, 2020 15:17

      Yes I lacked the advancement gene too Jim! Wanted to keep my hand in my chosen career.

      Loved your lesson about don’t ask permission!

      Have I told you my grandfather was born in Hay. His middle name was Hay. He went to the (a) primary school there. But maybe we’ve discussed this.

    • Sue permalink
      May 29, 2020 17:39

      That’s interesting Bill Kable, my brother taught at that same high school – after finishing Uni he was sent to Hay for two years – loathed the inland and has never travelled west of the Blue Mountains since – in face he won’t live anywhere not in sight of the coast! Small world, maybe you came across each other, it would have been around that time. He wouldn’t have been looking happy….

      • May 31, 2020 20:36

        Sue: Who was your brother? I’m Jim by the way. (1971, 1972 at HWMHS.)

      • May 31, 2020 20:52

        Haha Sue… I couldn’t care less whether I saw the sea from one year to the next, though I do enjoy the coast when I go there. Give me the inland anytime!

  5. buriedinprint permalink
    May 29, 2020 22:02

    It’ll be so interesting to see which items you pull from S’s archives. And I bet it’ll be like reading it for the first time, now that so much time has passed. Maybe it’ll even inspire some rereading! (Well, not now, while time is in such short supply, but perhaps another time.) Also I love the trouser humour.

    • May 29, 2020 23:04

      Sue out of her kind heart followed me from my first post. I may have followed her a couple of months earlier but by then she had been blogging for 5 or 6 years. So all the posts I select are new to me too.

      • May 30, 2020 08:21

        Kind heart? You looked well worth following Bill… And so you have proved to be, not to mention kind too.

    • May 30, 2020 08:18

      I’m looking forward to seeing what be chooses too, Buried.

  6. June 10, 2020 12:56

    This post & this thread has made my day – & a wry, dreary Sydney it is too.
    Bill, I will read this book, one if your favourites, soon, I promise. But as you can see by the distance between this post & my response, getting yo things in a timely fashion seems beyond me at the moment.
    And Sue, I hope things are going better for your family. Thinking of you.

    • June 10, 2020 12:57

      Typing on a phone is also a challenge on a wet, dreary Sydney day 😊

    • June 10, 2020 13:47

      I’m further west and south in NSW, driving along the Edward River under clear pale blue skies. A nicer day than you are having in Sydney obviously though just as time challenged. Home territory to my other favourite great Australian novel Such is Life. Do read The Pea Pickers, but when you have time to let it sink in.

    • June 10, 2020 13:58

      Thanks Brona. Do read it… It’s unforgettable, from a creative mind.

      Things are still tough family-wise Brona, but thanks for asking.

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