Jane Sinclair’s hybrid biography-memoir, Shy love smiles and acid drops: Letters from a difficult marriage, is an unusual book. Covering around two years in her parents’ life, this book comprises, mostly, letters sent between her parents between April 1960 and July 1962 when Sinclair and her mother were in England while her father remained in Australia. Between the letters (and some entries from her mother’s journal), Sinclair adds explanatory information, which ensures the narrative flow.
Sinclair was 5 to 7 years old when these letters were written. Being so young, her memory of that time is scattered, but she has clearly thought much about her parents in her adult life. Also, she remembers family stories of those times told to her later, and she did discuss her parents’ relationship with them, though, as is the way with such things, not as much as she wishes she had. The book was inspired by her finding the letters that underpin this book.
What makes this book particularly interesting is who her parents are, the artist Jean Langley and music critic John Sinclair. You may or may not have heard of them, but these two were part of mid-twentieth century Melbourne’s arts and music scene. In particular, they had close connections with the Heide artistic community, which inspired Emily Bitto’s award-winning novel, The strays (my review), and which was created by two art-lovers and philanthropists, John and Sunday Reed. This community was famous for two things, the art produced there and the complicated personal relationships amongst its members.
Some of Australia’s best-regarded modernist artists were associated with Heide, people like Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan, and Joy Hester, all of whom appear in this book. Artist Arthur Boyd was also close to these people, though not part of the community. However, Heide was just as well-known, as Wikipedia puts it, for “the intertwined personal and professional lives of the people involved”. Sunday Reed herself had affairs with several in the community, with her husband’s knowledge. This art history is what primarily attracted me to the book, but it was the background rather than the focus that I’d hoped. Instead, Shy love smiles and acid drops is exactly what it says it is, the story of “a difficult marriage”. As we are told on the back cover
when Jane Sinclair was five her mother Jean Langley followed her lover, Arthur Boyd, to London and took Jane with her. This book covers the two years they live there before returning to Australia in 1962, by which time her mother is three months pregnant to an Englishman.
“Your letter makes me cross” (Jeannie)
The letters are difficult reading because of the emotional pain and distress they contain. There are some fascinating insights into London and England at a time when many Australians saw it as a mecca for arts and culture. Indeed, while Jean Langley was there, living near the Boyds, so were their friends, Barry Humphries and his wife.
In her introduction, Sinclair speaks of how the letters caused her to “seriously question” her mother’s “version of herself as the aggrieved, wronged wife that she had cultivated and genuinely believe to be true”. Sinclair was also sorry that she had never allowed her father, who died twenty-five years before her mother, to tell his side of the story. This is understandable given when he died, she had probably not reached that age of (hopefully) wise reflection many of us do later in our lives, that age when we start to really see our parents as human beings, rather than seeing them through the prism of their relationship with us. I think this is so, in even the best of parent-child relationships?
Anyhow, Sinclair tells us that her parents’ relationship was “intense and difficult” from the start. They separated many times, but “there remained an irresistible attraction that kept them returning to each other”. Eleven years of age separated her mother and father, but it seems that personality difference (“not compatible emotionally”) was the essential problem. John Sinclair apparently tended to melancholy and depression, while Jean Langley was a romantic. “She could create sparkle and shine” and “wanted the world to be a beautiful place of happy endings”. All this comes through the letters. John expresses his sadness, his missing his wife and daughter, while Jeannie expresses her frustration with him, and her increasing disappointment with life and human beings, as things become more and more complicated. The England she adored at the beginning of her trip is not so great when it becomes cold and grey, and as the reality of never having enough money sets in.
“a riddle, muddle, fiddle, diddle” (Jeannie)
But what comes through even more is miscommunication, and particularly what seems to be Jeannie’s wilful misreading of John’s letters. When he invites her to return home on her terms – meaning she can live separately from him if she wishes – Jeannie seems to misread that wilfully, insisting again and again that she can’t be his wife, she won’t sleep with him, and so on. Readers wonder where she reads this, because we don’t.
At times, I put my feminist hat on and wondered whether there was something about John that we don’t know. Should I be supporting my down-trodden sister, I started to wonder? But, while there are, naturally, gender issues to do with women’s place in the mid-twentieth century, I don’t read a woman wronged by her husband here. I read a woman who, due to her own personality, and upbringing perhaps, regularly let emotion cloud her ability to reason – to her own detriment as well as those around her. She falls in and out of love twice during this English sojourn – besides the apparently abiding love for Arthur Boyd – and admits in June 1962 that, “I seem to have made a mess of my emotions”.
As the narrative progresses, daughter Jean notes that her mother, who liked to see herself as truthful, strayed often from it:
My mother believed in her emotional truth, and unfortunately for my father, it was sometimes very far from reality.
Reading this, I think I would say more than “sometimes”. I have known people like Jeannie, people who have such a zest for life but who wear their emotions so close to the surface that they can’t reason through what is really happening. They can be both joyful and draining to be around, and this is how Jeannie comes across.
This is not my usual review, because, in a sense, it’s hard to review such a personal book. Indeed it’s so personal that it’s worth thinking about its target. There’s some interesting social history here – life in the 60s, the experience of Aussie artistic expats in London, the challenges of communication in those pre-electronic communications days. There’s also a little about the the art world, the odd reference to a Boyd or Nolan exhibition, to the Blackmans, and to Brett Whiteley whom Jeannie calls “a shocking little upstart”. But, overall, this is a nicely presented but intense story of a “difficult marriage”, and it will appeal mostly to those interested in human relationships.
Read for #ReadIndies month (kaggsysbookishramblings and Lizzy’s Literary Life). Hybrid is a Melbourne-based independent publisher, with a special but not exclusive interest in Judaica. I have reviewed many of their books over the years.
Shy love smiles and acid drops: Letters from a difficult marriage
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2021
Cover art: from oil painting by Jane Sinclair
(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)