Amy Witting, Isobel on the way to the corner shop (#BookReview)

My first reading group book of the year, Amy Witting’s Isobel on the way to the corner shop, nicely doubles as a (late) contribution to Bill’s AWW Gen 4 week. Winner of the 1993 Patrick White Award, Amy Witting is one of those much-admired Australian writers who had not then and still has not received the full recognition she deserves. In her lifetime (1918-2001), she was admired by Patrick White, himself, and Thea Astley. Australian poet Kenneth Slessor is recorded as having said “tell that women I’ll publish any word she writes”.

Another admirer, Australia critic Peter Craven, argued that her form of realism wasn’t really accepted by the reading public until Helen Garner appeared on the scene, but for him “Witting was a great master of realism, a naturalist who could render a nuance in a line that might take a lesser writer a page”. Take for example this two sentence paragraph from our socially unconfident protagonist early in the novel:

The prison of other people’s eyes. No prison narrower.

So now, the book. Isobel on the way to the corner shop (1999) picks up the story of Isobel Callaghan that Witting had started in I for Isobel ten years earlier. You don’t need to have read the earlier book to enjoy and appreciate this one, because enough of Isobel’s past is given for us to have a sense of why she is the person we meet here.

“I have to step out into space”

The person we meet is a 21-year-old woman who, having received some encouragement from an editor, is struggling to establish herself as a writer. She’s poor, starving and isolated, having left her job after screaming at a colleague in “a rage”. She fears she’s going mad. I was engaged from the start by her strong sense of self, her vulnerability, and her determination to be independent, and I enjoyed every moment I spent with her. I felt anxious, as anxious as she did when she felt she was going mad, and just as relieved as she was when her illness was given a name – tuberculosis.

The first third of the novel introduces Isobel and takes us to the moment of her admission into Mornington Sanatorium in the Blue Mountains. In this section, some of the novel’s themes become apparent – one being the artist’s struggle to survive. Another concerns love. The novel starts with Isobel stalled over writing a love scene, because she doesn’t “know the first thing about it”. Not about parental, family love; not about romantic love. This, and her sense of herself as awkward and unlovable, cause her to make a big – and hurtful – mistake when a young man makes a gesture of real affection towards her.

Over the rest of this section of the novel, Isobel meets some people who show genuine kindness – love – towards her. Although the hospital makes her feel like a “parcel”, the section closes with a comforting touch from hospital volunteer Mrs Delaney, “the first time anyone had touched her in kindness”. Through the remainder of the novel, Isobel observes and experiences all sorts of expressions of love (and its opposite), including through a delightful little poetry discussion group at the sanatorium, which starts when Doctor Wang asks Isobel to explain Gerard Manley Hopkins to him.

In the final two-thirds of the novel, another theme that was nascent at the beginning, comes to the fore, and it’s to do with “being oneself”. Isobel’s sense of self is challenged at the sanatorium. It’s an inspired setting because it encompasses a microcosm of society: patients of a disease that doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor, their visitors, and the doctors, nurses and other staff with whom the patients come in contact. Finding your place in such a world, where you can be stuck for months, is not easy.

Isobel is particularly tested by her room-mate Val, a peevish, inflexible, and, she thinks, illiterate woman. Val is unhappy, and like many unhappy people, is self-absorbed. She “felt for no-one”. Try as she might, Isobel cannot get their relationship onto a comfortable footing:

Is it possible to cause so much misery to another human being, simply by being oneself? she wondered, feeling a reflection of that misery. No help for it; she must continue to be herself.

Maintaining your self is difficult, though, when you are “different”, as our funny, resourceful, and compassionate Isobel clearly is. At one point, when her recovery is threatened, she realises that she must be tougher, and so creates a new mantra for herself, “bastards get better”.

There is, surely, a hint of autobiography here, for Amy Witting’s name is a pseudonym, chosen to remind herself to “never give up on consciousness’, not be unwitting, but to always remain ‘witting'”.

Gradually Isobel does get better, physically and emotionally. She discovers, for example, that people from her old workplace cared deeply about her:

I have to live as if…I have to assume that I have some importance to other people. I have to live accordingly. I have to step out into space.

With this comes debts and responsibilities, something new for her to accommodate.

Peter Craven described Witting’s work as “a form of realism”, and “realism” sounds valid to me. The novel contains minimal drama of the narrative-arc kind. Instead, there’s astute, warm and sometimes wry, observation of ordinary people living their lives. Witting looks into the hearts and minds of human beings to understand who we are, and how we get on together with all our differences. She also offers some subtle social commentary about gender, race, poverty, class. These are not the main game, but they inform the realism inherent in the setting.

Ultimately, Isobel on the way to the corner shop is about how a young artist learns to maintain her integrity, her authenticity, while also behaving responsibly and compassionately. It is, in a way, about growing up, but it encompasses far more too.

Amy Witting
Isobel on the way to the corner shop
Melbourne: Text Classics, 2015 (orig. pub. 1999)
311 pp.
ISBN: 9781922182715

23 thoughts on “Amy Witting, Isobel on the way to the corner shop (#BookReview)

        • Oh, he only has a handful of mentions, M-R. I mentioned him because he was the first poet mentioned and I love him. One of my favourite poems of all time is his Spring and fall, but I love so many of his lines. The have such music to them.

        • His work was flogged so unmercilessly throughout my convent school days that due appreciation of that marvellous beat was lost during them. One appreciates more when not being told to. 🙂

        • Ah, yes, I guess they loved his religiosity.I found the more religious poems powerful in a way but we discussed them at school and university from an intellectual POV.

  1. I was taught French by Amy Witting at Cheltenham Girls High School in Sydney in the 1960s. We knew her as Mrs Levick. I was also taught English (including English Honours for the Leaving Certificate) by Thea Astley (Mrs Gregson). We were very privileged but I suspect that most of my schoolmates did not appreciate either of these amazing women.

    • That’s so lucky Ros. You said this on my post on a short story of hers, but I’d forgotten until I looked at that post when preparing this one. They are memories for life aren’t they.

  2. I didn’t know of Amy Witting at all until you and Lisa began talking about her recently. I see I have on my shelves Marriages (short stories) from one of my bulk purchases no doubt. I should send it to you and try and find I for Isobel for myself. I like Garner, I like autofiction. It should be just the thing.
    And thanks for adding to our AWW Gen 4 reviews.

    • This is, to me, the sad thing Bill. She should be better known. I reviewed a short story of hers back In 2017 when Text published a short story collection of hers. I did that partly because it was a quick way of getting her onto my blog.

      The whole autofiction thing is tricky with her because she avoided talking about that I understand, but I think it’s generally accepted that the Isobel books have a strong autobiographical element.

      Oh, and I love adding to your reviews.

  3. I have just read I for Isobel, Sue, and it was fascinating for me to read about her mother who sounds very similar to mine unfortunately, but that meant I could relate so much to her anxiety and fraught home life! I’ve ordered Isobel on the Way to the Corner Store from Ebay (along with I for Isobel) – I actually love the old covers instead of the text classics! I am looking forward to reading this one and will let you know what I think when it arrives. I do remember a friend reading it in Melbourne long long ago, but I evidently had no interest at that time, so I’m catching up now.

    I’m so sorry I was too late for Witting and Astley at Cheltenham!

    • Yes, lucky Ros, eh? Anyhow, I’m so glad you liked it. She’s such a clear and perceptive writer, and Isobel is such a great character. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the second one.

  4. This novel sounds wonderful, and the quotes you provided sure did get my thinking, especially that one about other people’s eyes being the most narrow prison. I’d never thought of it that way, but she’s not wrong. If you imagine the way in some cultures we narrow our eyes purposefully to show dissatisfaction, the prison becomes even smaller still.

    I did somewhat recently read a tuberculosis memoir by Betty MacDonald (I’m reading quite a lot of her just recently, and it’s all Bill’s fault). The novel was quite sad but educational, from the noises people with lung diseases make to the procedures and therapies they used. Nurse friend/blogger Lou confirmed the treatments for collapsing a patient’s lung and not letting them do ANYTHING truly were the best option at the time.

  5. Pingback: Sunday Lowdown #157 – Grab the Lapels

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