Price Warung, Selected tales of Price Warung (#BookReview)

Price Warung, as I wrote in my previous post on him, is the pseudonym used by English-born Australian writer, William Astley, who came to Australia with his parents in 1859 when he was still a child. Astley became a radical journalist and short-story writer, with particular interests in transportation/convict literature, and the Labour and Federation movements. Tales of the early days, the book I reviewed in my first post, was republished by the Sydney University Press, and was entirely convict-focused.

I didn’t expect to see Price Warung again, but here he is, a few years later, in a book containing a selection from three of his five books: Tales of the convict system (1892), Tales of the early Days (1894), and Half-crown Bob and tales of the riverine (1898). Given I’ve already devoted a post to the convict stories – four of which are included in this collection’s eleven, including the well-regarded “Secret Society of the Ring” – I will focus here on editor Lucas Smith’s introduction to the collection and Warung’s riverine stories, which are new to me.

Introduction

The first thing to say is that these stories were written between 1888 and 1898, but are mostly set decades earlier.

Smith starts by stating that, after Marcus Clarke’s For the term of his natural life (1874), “no writer did more to forge the myth of Australia’s convict heritage than William Astley”. However, Astley’s work a journalist included rural newspapers, like the Riverine Herald in Echuca, where gathered material for his “poignant and humorous stories about early steamboat traffic on the Murray River”. Smith says that these stories, which were “reminiscent of Joseph Furphy*”, were “his only departure from depictions of the convict system’s grimness”.

Astley’s popularity was brief, but it did make him a prominent “literary and political figure”. He is, claims Smith, “our Chekhov to Clarke’s Tolstoy”. Big claim, eh? Smith says that, with Clarke, Warung “is responsible for our colloquial [my emph.] understanding of the convicts as victims (although usually not innocent ones) of an inhuman system.” While historians like Russell Ward describe “how Australian convicts often enjoyed higher-quality food and working conditions than the labouring classes in England”, the brutal images of “striped backs”, “broken bodies” and “unrepentant gangs bent of revenge” persist. They are based in fact but were “a small aspect of the transportation system”.

Smith goes on to briefly discuss the origins – the facts and fiction – of the “convict myth”, before explaining why Warung is worth reading:

Warung is far from the supreme stylist of colonial Australia. He is often sub-Dickensian in his sentimentality, and rigid in his humour. Nevertheless, his realism, irony and humour, as well as his diligent research, exhaustively undertaken from both archival research and his associations with “the ghosts of Old Sydney”, make him worthy of reintroduction to a contemporary audience.

This collection, he says, represents “a cross-section of his work: the lured convict tales, the laconic riverboat yarns, and the anti-System diatribes”.

Regarding Warung’s reputation, Smith says that unlike some of the other men and women of the Bulletin school of the 1890s, Warung has attracted little academic attention, being seen, with a few exceptions, as an also-ran. One of these exceptions is, intriguingly, an American, Edward Watts, who believes that Warung has been “unfairly marginalised”. While not quite convinced by Watts’ suggestion of a “faint comparison to the infamous neglect of Herman Melville prior to the 1920s”, Smith argues that Warung is “more than a penny-a-liner and well deserving of further study”.

The Riverine

Smith says of the riverine stories that, “freed from the grim and technical language of the penal system”, they contain Warung’s “most fluid and picturesque writing”. He’s right, though these stories have their own technical language to confront. They are more humorous, but can also be “political”, with issues like labour practices, land-deals, political bribery, and so on, revealed through their narratives. Smith suggests that the convicts were violent to authority, while the riverine folk were “merely contemptuous”.

Book cover

The four riverine stories – “The last of the Wombat Barge”, “Dictionary Ned”, “The incineration of Dictionary Ned”, and “The doom of Walmsley’s Ruby” – all concern the steamboats that plied the river system, carrying cargo, particularly wool, from producers to ports, and bringing needed goods back. Given this industry’s demise by the 1930s, Warung’s stories offer insights from one who knew (versus Nancy Cato’s more romanticised historical fiction, All the rivers run trilogy). Echuca, where Warung spent some time, was a major port on the Murray.

“The last of the Wombat Barge” revolves around a woman working on the boats. While Jim, who managed the river pontoons to let boats through, was partial to “womanines”, others were not impressed by a woman taking a man’s job (whether it directly concerned them or not). Indeed, “the whole river population … were in agitation”:

The mate, whom Mrs Kingsley had displaced had almost as much to say as Sooty Bill the loafer, who never had a wash except when he was thrown in the river in a squabble, and who never did an honest day’s work out of gaol.

Various men try to change Captain Kingsley’s mind, but things turn to custard when the deckhands, for whom “the idea of being bossed by a woman galled their manhood” quit, and he is forced to employ scab Chinese labour. While “missie mate” was good at her job, the Kingsleys are, ultimately, brought down by pride and greed. However, the language used to describe the Chinese is shocking, with the novel’s moral being not to employ the Chinese, whose intelligence was limited to “imitation”, who lacked “initiative and readiness of wit”, and who brought disease.

“Dictionary Ned” is my favourite riverine story. Bargeman Ned buys a dictionary when he’s around forty years old, “in the vain hope of making up the deficiencies his early education”. He carries it everywhere, studying it, rigorously, at every opportunity, “when other men smoked, or swapped yarns, or drank”. He is also scrupulous about keeping his person and clothes clean. He is noticed by College Bill who, in addition to being of “odorous carcass”, has squandered his education. He accosts Ned, but comes off worse in a game of words, resulting in Ned’s star rising among his river peers, who had previously ridiculed him. The story’s end, though, is one of kindness and redemption. “The incineration of Dictionary Ned” is an entertaining tale about Ned’s desire for cremation, but it also exposes some of the politics and land deals between squatters and selectors in colonial Australia.

Warung’s stories aren’t particularly subtle but even the more gruesome ones exude a life and energy in their characters that engaged me. The stories also offer insights into the times about which he writes, and the times from which he writes! Worth reading.

* You can follow Bill’s current slow reading engagement with Furphy here.

Price Warung
Selected tales of Price Warung: Selected and introduced by Lucas Smith
Bonfire Books, 2020
236pp.
ISBN: 9780646819273

(Review copy courtesy Bonfire Books)


Monday musings on Australian literature: Forgotten writers 2, Eliza Hamilton Dunlop

When I started my Monday Musings sub-series on forgotten Australian writers a couple of months ago, I had a few writers in mind, including the first one I did, Helen Simpson. However, a couple of weeks ago, The Conversation published the latest in their Hidden Women of History series, and the subject was an Irish-Australian poet, Eliza Hamilton Dunlop. I figured that, being a poet, she also qualifies for my Forgotten Writers series. I hadn’t heard of her, but she has become well-known in academic circles, because of … well I’ll let The Conversation explain.

Anna Johnston, co-editor with Elizabeth Webbey, of the recently published collection of essays Eliza Hamilton Dunlop: Writing from the colonial frontier, launches her The Conversation article with

Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s poem The Aboriginal Mother was published in The Australian on December 13, 1838, five days before seven men were hanged for their part in the Myall Creek massacre.

Dunlop, Johnston continues, had arrived in Sydney in February and was “horrified by the violence” she read about in the papers. Her poem was inspired by the evidence given in court about an Indigenous woman and baby who survived the massacre. In it, she condemns “settlers who professed Christianity but murdered and conspired to cover up their crime”.

The poem made Dunlop “locally notorious”, but “she didn’t shrink from the criticism she received in Australia’s colonial press”. She hoped

the poem would awake the sympathies of the English nation for a people who were “rendered desperate and revengeful by continued acts of outrage”.

So, who was this outspoken, confident woman?

She was born in Ireland in 1796. Her father was a lawyer, but her mother died soon after her birth. Soon after, her father moved to India, to be a Supreme Court judge, so she was raised by her paternal grandmother. Johnston writes that she grew up in a “privileged Protestant family with an excellent library”, and “grew up reading writers from the French Revolution and social reformers such as Mary Wollstonecraft”. She started writing at a young age, and had poems published in local magazines in her teens.

These poems reflected her interest in the Irish language and in political campaigns to extend suffrage and education to Catholics. After travelling to India in 1820, she wrote poems about the impact of British colonialism. Then, in 1823 she married book binder and seller David Dunlop, in Scotland. His family history inspired poems about the bloody suppression of Protestant radicals in the 1798 Rebellion.

According to ADB, she had previously married an Irish astronomer in Ireland and had two children, one born in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, in 1816. They don’t mention what happened to this husband, but they concur with Johnston about her marrying Dunlop in 1823. Johnston says that Eliza and David had five children in Coleraine, and that they were engaged there “in political activity seeking to unseat absentee English landlords”. Clearly, Dunlop was politically engaged from an early age.

The family left Ireland in 1837, arriving in Australia, as mentioned above, in February 1938. Husband David worked first as a magistrate in Penrith, before, in 1839, becoming police magistrate and protector of Aborigines at Wollombi and Macdonald River, where he remained until 1847. ADB’s Gunson says that “as a minor poet Mrs Dunlop contributed to the literary life of the Hunter River circle” and that “her acquaintance with the European literary world gave her a place of prestige, and though neither as talented nor radical as, for example, Charles Harpur, her contribution was original”.

Songs of an exile

She may not have been, as “talented” or “radical” as others, but Sydney University Press deems her a worthy subject. Their promo for the above-mentioned book says that, after the publication of “The Aboriginal mother”,

She published more poetry in colonial newspapers during her lifetime, but for the century following her death her work was largely neglected. In recent years, however, critical interest in Dunlop has increased, in Australia and internationally and in a range of fields, including literary studies; settler, postcolonial and imperial studies; and Indigenous studies.

One of those interested is Katie Hansord, who has an essay in the book and who has written about her on the Tinteán online magazine website. Hansord’s article is titled – surprise, surprise – “a forgotten colonial woman poet”. Hansord says that in addition to being a poet she was “a playwright, a writer of short stories, and a passionate advocate of human rights with a keen interest in politics”. She writes that

Dunlop’s poetry reflects her concerns with both gender and nationalism. It should be remembered that in its original publication, ‘The Aboriginal Mother’ was the fourth poem in the series ‘Songs of an Exile’ which Dunlop published in The Australian from October 1838.

The poem is easily found on the web, and has been included in many anthologies, but it is also in Hansord’s article, linked above. The poem was, as were many of Dunlop’s poems, set to music by Isaac Nathan, and performed in concerts at the time.

However, the point I wish to end on concerns the reception of “The Aboriginal mother” because it was, of course, controversial. Leading the negative charge was, apparently, The Sydney Morning Herald, which essentially believed that Dunlop had “given an entirely false idea of the native character”(29 November 1941), that, in effect, the Indigenous people were not capable of such deep feelings.

Hansord says more about this in her article:

Elizabeth Webby has also pointed out that the Sydney Morning Herald ‘which had strongly opposed the execution of the men involved in Myall Creek was for many years very hostile to her [Dunlop] and her work’ (Blush 45). This hostility seems also to have reflected a growing white masculinist nationalist agenda.

Hansord briefly discusses the construction of “Australianness” during the nineteenth century, a construction that privileged white Australian-born men. For immigrant Irishwoman Dunlop – who was also actively engaged in capturing Indigenous language and translating Indigenous songs – this was clearly not good enough, and she engaged. (You can find an example of an Indigenous poem captured in the original language and translated by Dunlop, in The Band of Hope Journal and Australian Home Companion (5 June 1958)).

Dunlop died in Wollombi in 1880, and is buried in the local Church of England cemetery. There is clearly much more to this woman, but let this be a little introduction to another interesting, independent colonial Australian woman!

Jane Austen, Lesley Castle (#Review)

I mentioned in my post on the second volume of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, that I might do a separate post on one of its longer pieces, Lesley Castle. It’s one of her three longer pieces in that volume, and is often published separately or in other compilations, so warrants some attention, methinks!

Lesley Castle

Lesley Castle is another of Austen’s epistolary pieces. According to Juliet McMaster, writing in Persuasions Online, it represented a “step forward” in epistolary novels because the writers correspond with each other, rather than to someone “off-stage”. In this piece, in fact, there are several correspondents, writing to each other, resulting in different perspectives being offered on some of the main “characters”.

Lesley Castle is essentially an unfinished collection of correspondence between various “friends” who talk mostly of marriage – and of each other. Like many of the Juvenilia pieces, it demonstrates Austen’s love of writing about wickedness. It starts with Margaret writing of her brother’s adulterous wife running off, leaving not only her husband but her 2-year-old child, and of her widowed father, “fluttering about the streets of London, gay, dissipated and thoughtless at the age of 57”. Her correspondent, Charlotte, reports back about her tragedy, the death of her sister’s fiancé from falling off his horse, but she is more interested in food than in her bereaved sister. Insensitively, she describes her distraught sister’s face being “as White as a Whipt syllabub“. Such-self-centredness is rife in Austen – and you can hear her cheeky teenage self laughing as she wrote it!

Interestingly, this story is set largely in Scotland, which Austen never visited, and rarely mentioned in her works. Why Scotland, then? One reason could be to mock the vogue at the time for things Scottish. Margaret claims that she and her sister are happy there:

But tho’ retired from almost all in the World, (for we visit no one but the M’Leods, the M’Kenzies, the M’Phersons, the M’Cartneys, the M’donalds, the M’Kinnons, the M’lellans, the M’Kays, the Macbeths and the Macduffs) we are neither dull not unhappy …

The inclusions of “the Macbeths and Macduffs” is an additional pointer to Austen’s love of nonsense. She used lists frequently in the Juvenilia, often ending them with something extra “silly” to make her point. As I said in my first Juvenilia post, subtlety was to come in her mature works!

The new Lady Lesley, the aforementioned dissipated father’s new wife, is not so taken. She is also a friend of Charlotte’s and writes to her about her new Scottish-based step-daughters:

I wish my dear Charlotte that you could but behold these Scotch giants; I am sure they would frighten you out of your wits. […] Those girls have no music, but Scotch airs, no drawings but Scotch mountains, and no books but Scotch poems–and I hate everything Scotch.

Charlotte, meanwhile, had written to Margaret about Lady Lesley whom she sees as favouring “haunts of Dissipation” (essentially, cities):

Perhaps however if she finds her health impaired by too much amusement, she may acquire fortitude sufficient to undertake a Journey to Scotland in the hope of finding it at least beneficial to her health, if not conducive to her happiness.

The piece continues in this sort of vein with the correspondents often writing at cross-purposes, and, it must be said, focusing more on self-interest than the needs of others.

Of course, Austen readers always look for hints not only of style and themes (here, self-centredness, snobbishness, sensibility, hypocrisy, country versus city, and marriage) but of characters to come. In Lesley Castle, Charlotte reminds us particularly of a few Emma characters: Mr Woodhouse and his focus on food (though his is of a very particular type), Mrs Elton and her self-centred obliviousness to the needs of others, and, even, says Heller (referenced below) of Miss Bates in her garrulousness.

Margaret is a good example of Austen’s deluded characters who see themselves one way, while showing themselves to be very different. Many of the letters open affectionately, but contain or end with cutting remarks. Margaret, for example, writes to Charlotte complaining about being admired by too “many amiable Young Men” and expressing her “Aversion to being so celebrated both in Public, in Private, in Papers, & in Printshops”. She continues:

How often have I wished that I possessed as little personal Beauty as you do; that my figure were as inelegant; my face as unlovely; and my Appearance as unpleasing as yours!

Lesley Castle is probably not for every-one. So, rather than try to convince you to read it, I’ll conclude with Zoë Heller in The Guardian. Writing about Austen’s youthful work, she says that “as always in Austen’s work, recklessness with facts and inattention to detail are the rhetorical clues to a deeper-seated, moral carelessness”. How perceptive.

Jane Austen
“Lesley Castle”
in
“Juvenilia. Volume the second” (ed. R.W. Chapman & Brian Southam)
in The Oxford illustrated Jane Austen. Vol VI, Minor works
London: Oxford University Press, 1969 (revision)
pp. 76-178
ISBN: 19 254706 2

Monday musings on Australian literature: Selected early high country history

As some of you know, I am currently having a little summer break in Australia’s high country, based in Thredbo in Kosciuszko National Park. This is an annual trek for Mr Gums and me, and I have written about it occasionally before. I thought I’d do so again for this week’s Monday Musings, from an historical angle. It’s just a soupçon, because I’m too busy holidaying to do more!

Bundian Way

The Bundian Way is, says its website, “an ancient pathway for Aboriginal people from Yuin, Ngarigo, Jaitmathang, Bidawal Country that provided safe passage between the coast and the high country”. 

The project to document and develop it as a community resource is an ambitious one that, say the organisers, is not about native title, but about acknowledging “Aboriginal cultural heritage values in the historic landscape” and that “these are symbolised by the old pathways”. Surveying the Way commenced in 2010, and was conducted, says Wikipedia, by the Eden Aboriginal Land Council and naturalist John Blay (who has subsequently written On track: Searching out the Bundian Way, 2015). They identified the 265-kilometre route (though the length varies a bit according to the source) using, for example, historical records like 19th century survey reports and journals. The website notes early interactions with Europeans, and the role played by journals:

The old Aboriginal people showed the European ‘explorers’ the pathways (e.g. Ryrie 1840 journals and maps; Robinson 1844-5) and permitted use of the country in the earliest days by highland Scots shepherds, and the horsemen and cattlemen who followed (Watson 1984).

I came across the Bundian Way in an article in the December 2020 issue of the free The Snowpost magazine. It describes the Way as “a shared history pathway” “that was the easiest path from the Monaro to the coastal plains”. It includes places associated with Aboriginal whaling and springtime ceremonies in Twofold Bay on the south coast, and Aboriginal bogong moth hunting and ceremonies in the high country in summer. The article notes that there is still evidence along the route of “old land management … in its Aboriginal landscapes”, which presumably was also used in the survey.

The Snowpost (possibly using Wikipedia) also notes the role played by the controversial Chief Protector of Aborigines GA Robinson in all this. Wikipedia cites John Blay as saying that Robinson recorded the story of Al.mil.gong who walked from Omeo to present his new corroboree to his kin at Bilgalera on Twofold Bay on 14 August 1844. The important thing is not who provides the information, but that we have the information, eh? The Snowpost also records that geologist WB Clarke, who explored around here in 1852, recorded Indigenous people’s description of the Bundian Pass. Unfortunately, his writings and Robinson’s don’t appear to be available on Project Gutenberg Australia.

Finally, the Snowy-Monaro Regional Council makes the point that:

This walking track is older than the silk roads and was used the Aboriginal people for trading, ceremonies, family gatherings and caring for country for thousands of years.

Georg von Neumayer

Also active in Australia around the middle of the nineteenth century, like Robinson and Clarke, was the German polar explorer and scientist Georg Neumayer or Georg Balthasar von Neumayer. Tim Flannery writes in his book, The explorers, that “the exploration of the Australian Alps seems inextricably linked with Germans and Poles: Lhotsky, Strzelecki, Neumayer and von Guérard”. Neumayer, who was interested in “terrestrial magnetism, hydrography and meteorology”, conducted a magnetic survey of “the colony of Victoria”. In doing so, he visited the summit of Mt Kosciuszko in November-December, 1862, with his assistant Edward Brinkmann and the artist Eugène von Guérard. Flannery writes that Neumayer’s account of this trip “provides a terrifying example of Australia’s fickle alpine weather”. Flannery also says that the Von Guérard painted “one of his most memorable works [of Mt Kosciuszko] from the view he obtained on that dramatic November day”. You can see a version on the Art Gallery of New South Wales website.

Flannery quotes Neumayer as saying that

The vegetation near the camping place [which overlooked the Manroo Plains and Thredbo River] reminds one very much of that of the Alps except that the strange look of the dwarf gum trees introduces rather a new feature.

I suspect it’s true that alpine regions can look very similar – except for vegetation! Neumayer also notes that

M. de Guérard, meanwhile, had seated himself on the summit, which affords a beautiful view of the mountainous country of New South Wales and Victoria, as well as the plains of the Murray River, and was taking a sketch of the scenery when, just as I was completing my observations, he called out that it appeared to him a heavy storm was approaching from the New South Wales side.

What follows is a rather terrifying description of coping with this storm, during which Edward Brinkmann (who was looking after some of Neumayer’s instruments) got lost. This was around 18 November 1962, I think. Despite looking hard for him, they could not find him.

Neumayer writes on 3 December 1862

The day very hot, and a haze, caused by bushfires, over the whole sky, so that nothing of the fine mountain scenery was visible.

Such is the alpine environment – blizzard one day, bushfire the next. Anyhow, Neumayer and von Guérard

Thredbo River, Kosciuszko National Park
Thredbo River (on a nice day), Kosciuszko National Park)

Went to the police court, but could hear nothing of him, so that the last hope of his safety was now quite destroyed. Sat down to dinner, and had hardly done so when the lost man made his appearance in a most deplorable condition, having been without food and clothes for some time. My conjectures as to the route he had taken proved to be correct. Soon after leaving us on Mt Kosciusko, he endeavoured to return but missed the track to the camp and descended into the valley of the Thredbo River. For two days he wandered on, with scarcely anything to eat, until he fell in with some diggers in a lonely valley, who behaved most kindly to him and assisted him in making his way to Kiandra. … I cannot quit this most annoying affair without expressing my appreciation of Edward’s courageous behaviour, after separating from our party, and of the skill and care he bestowed upon the instruments entrusted to his charge; for the fine mountain barometer Fortin II did not receive the least injury during the whole of this rough and perilous journey.

I love that Neumayer seems to have cared both about Brinkmann AND his instruments!

Fannie Barrier Williams, Women in politics (#Review)

It’s been months since I posted on a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offering, but this week’s piece by African American activist, Fannie Barrier Williams, captured my attention. Several LOA offerings this year have been relevant to the times – including stories about infectious diseases – but this one is so spot on for so many reasons that I could not pass it up.

Fannie Barrier c1880, photographer, public domain via Wikipedia

Fannie Barrier Williams (1855-1944) was, according to Wikipedia (linked above), an American political and women’s rights activist, and the first black woman to gain membership to the Chicago Woman’s Club. According to LOA, she was also the first African-American to graduate from Brockport Normal School and “quickly became part of Chicago’s black elite when she moved there with her lawyer husband in 1887”. She was a distinguished artist and scholar.

However, it’s her activism that is my focus here. Wikipedia says that “although many white women’s organizations did not embrace their black counterparts as equals, Barrier Williams made a place for herself in the Illinois Woman’s Alliance (IWA).” She represented the viewpoint of black Americans in the IWA and “lectured frequently on the need for all women, but especially black women, to have the vote”.

And so we come to her little (in size not import) piece, “Women in politics”, which was published 1894. It concerns women voting. Universal suffrage was still some way off in the USA, but Barrier Williams commences by arguing that the “fragmentary suffrage, now possessed by women in nearly all states of the union”, will certainly and logically lead to “complete and national suffrage”. So, with this in mind, she, says LOA’s notes, “challenged women to use their newfound political power wisely”. She asks:

Are women ready to assume the responsibilities of this new recognition of their worth? This question is of immense importance to colored women.

She then poses, provocatively,

Must we begin our political duties with no better or higher conceptions of our citizenship than that shown by our men when they were first enfranchised? Are we to bring any refinement of individuality to the ballot box?

Her concern is that women – but we could read anyone really, giving it broader relevance – should not vote on partisan lines. Her concern is that voting along party lines will achieve nothing, and that

there will be much disappointment among those who believed that the cause of temperance, municipal reform and better education would be more surely advanced when the finer virtues of women became a part of the political forces of the country.

Hmmm … this seems to trot out the belief that women will bring “womanly” virtues, those more humanitarian-oriented values, to politics, which history has not necessarily borne out. However, this doesn’t belie the main point about voting thoughtfully.

She then discusses the opportunity for women to vote in Chicago for the trustees of the state university, but notes that the two women candidates have aligned themselves, respectively, to the republican and democratic tickets. She says that “so far the campaign speeches and methods have not been elevated in the least degree above the dead level of partisanship”. She doesn’t want to discredit these women’s good motives but argues that

this new opportunity for self-help and advancement ought not to be lost sight of in our thirst for public favors, or in our eagerness to help any grand old “party.” We ought not to put ourselves in the humiliating position of being loved only for the votes we have.

It seems that these two women candidates were white women. What she says next reminds me of Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous women and feminism (2000)which Angharad of Tinted Edges recently reviewed. Angharad writes that “Moreton-Robinson argues that because of feminism’s inherent but insufficiently examined white perspective, Indigenous women are excluded, minimised or merely tolerated conditionally. She argues that because race is considered to be something that is “other”, white feminists are unable to acknowledge their own race and associated privilege, their own role in perpetuating racial discrimination and are therefore unwilling to relinquish some of that power.”

A similar point was made over 100 years earlier by Barrier Williams:

The sincerity of white women, who have heretofore so scorned our ambitions and held themselves aloof from us in all our struggles for advancement, should be, to a degree, questioned. It would be much more to our credit if we would seek, by all possible uses of our franchise, to force these ambitious women candidates and women party managers to relent their cruel opposition to our girls and women in the matter of employment and the enjoyment of civil privileges.

She continues that “we should never forget that the exclusion of colored women and girls from nearly all places of respectable employment is due mostly to the meanness of American women” and that voters should use the franchise to “check this unkindness”. She urges voters not to focus on “the success of a party ticket for party reasons”. This would make them “guilty of the same folly and neglect of self-interest that have made colored men for the past twenty years vote persistently more for the special interests of white men than for the peculiar interests of the colored race”.

Strong words, but history surely tells us true ones. So, she asks voters “to array themselves, when possible, on the side of the best, whether that best be inside or outside of party lines”.

For Barrier Williams, as for many who fought for women’s suffrage, the vote was not just about equality but about what you could do with the vote. It was about having the opportunity to exert “a wholesome influence in the politics of the future”. The words may be strange to our 21st century ears, but the meaning still holds true – and is a timely one to consider now!

Fannie Barrier Williams
“Women in politics”
First published: The women’s era, 1894
Available: Online at the Library of America

Bill curates: Jane Austen’s letters, 1814-1816

Bill curates is 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 coverI said, when I introduced this series, that Sue began writing Whispering Gums in May 2009. It seems that once begun she could not stop. There are WG posts for May 2,4,5,6,10,14,15,16,19,21,22,27,28,30,31. The May 31 post is titled, prophetically, “When too much Jane Austen is barely enough”, and is in fact the third Jane Austen post for the month. Today I reprise the second. But there will be more.

Diedre Le Faye ed., Jane Austen’s Letters, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014

More Jane Austen from Whispering Gums (here)

_______________________

My original post

By 1814, Jane Austen had published Sense and sensibility (1811) and Pride and prejudice (1813).  Mansfield Park (1814) was about to be published, and Northanger Abbey had been written many years previously but was not yet published. She was over half way through her major published oeuvre of 6 books and had less than 4 years to live. Tragedy!

Jane Austen's desk with quill

Austen’s desk, Chawton. (Courtesy: Monster @ flickr.com)

There have been several editions of her letters, the most recent being Jane Austen’s letters, published in 1995 and edited by Jane Austen scholar, Deirdre Le Faye. Of the estimated 3000 letters she wrote, only about 160 survive so it is well to savour them slowly. I have just (re)read the letters from 1814 to 1816, and found much to delight a Janeite. They contain some of her most famous quotes regarding her subject-matter and style, advice to her nieces on novel-writing, criticisms of other writing which provide insight into her own writing, as well as a lot of detail about her daily life.

One of her most famous comments was made to her niece Anna (nèe Austen) Lefroy in September 1814:

You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life – 3 or 4 families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.

Somewhat less well known is her response to James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent’s chaplain and librarian, who suggested she write a novel about an English Clergyman. She writes:

The comic part of the character I might be equal to, but not the Good, the Enthusiastic, the Literary. Such a Man’s conversation must at times be on subjects of Science & Philosophy of which I know nothing  […] A Classical Education, or at any rate, a very extensive acquaintance with English Literature, Ancient and Modern, appears to me quite Indispensable for the person who would do any justice to your Clergyman. And I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible Vanity, the most unlearned, & uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress. (December 1815)

False modesty perhaps, but she she knew what she was comfortable writing and this was not it. She makes clear in her letters exactly what she thinks makes good writing and one of those things is to write what you know. She tells Anna that it is fine to let some characters go to Ireland but not to describe their time there “as you know nothing of the Manners there” (August 1814). Interestingly, it would have been around this time that she was writing Emma – some of whose characters go to Ireland but no details are given of their life there. She also tells Anna that fiction must appear to be realistic as well as be realistic when she says:

I have scratched out Sir Tho: from walking with the other Men to the Stables &c the very day after his breaking his arm – for though I find your Papa did walk out immediately after his arm was set, I think it can be so little usual as to appear unnatural in a book. (August 1814)

In other words, truth is allowed to be stranger than fiction!

In the September 1814 letter referred to earlier, she advises Anna to keep her characters consistent, and to be careful about providing too “minute” descriptions.  And in another letter written that same September she warns Anna off “common Novel style” such as creating a character who is “a handsome, amiable, unexceptionable Young Man (such as do not much abound in real Life)” and to not have a character “plunge into a ‘vortex of Dissipation’ … it is such thorough novel slang – and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened”!

There is a lot in these letters – about writing and getting published, the weather, fashion, health, and the like. However, in the interests of brevity I will close with something completely different but which, given the current popularity of Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap, seems very apposite. She writes this in 1815 about a young boy of her acquaintance: “we thought him a very fine boy, but in terrible want of Discipline – I hope he gets a wholesome thump, or two, whenever it is necessary”. If Jane thinks it’s a good idea, who are we to argue?

_______________________

When Bill offered this series to help me out, he said he’d start with Eve Langley’s The pea pickers, which he did. I wondered what he would choose next, but I should have guessed that he would have turned to another favourite that we share, Jane Austen.

We’d love all you other Austenites to show yourselves and tell us what you most love about her.

Sir Walter Scott, Waverley, Vol. 1 (#BookReview)

I admit it, I’m defeated – not because I’m not enjoying it, but because it needs more attention than my distracted brain can give it right now. Consequently, I am posting on just the first volume of Sir Walter Scott’s first novel, Waverley. I read it for my Jane Austen meeting last weekend. We did Scott for two reasons: he was highly impressed by Austen’s writing, and Austen liked his!

Waverley was published in 1814, and Austen mentioned it in a letter to her niece Anna Austen that year (which was just three years before she died). She said, in her inimitable Austen way:

Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. – It is not fair. – He has Fame & Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths. – I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but fear I must… (28 September 1814)

And I must too, really, I must, notwithstanding my decision to not continue!

And Walter Scott is worth liking, because he liked Austen! Here are three references he made to Austen in his journal a decade after she died:

Also read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of _Pride and Prejudice_. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early! Journal, 14/3/1826)

AND

The women do this better – Edgeworth, [Susan] Ferrier, Austen have all had their portraits of real society, far superior to anything man, vain man, has produced of the like nature. (28/3/826)

AND

Wrote five pages of the _Tales_. Walked from Huntly Burn, having gone in the carriage. Smoked my cigar with Lockhart after dinner, and then whiled away the evening over one of Miss Austen’s novels. There is a truth of painting in her writings which always delights me. They do not, it is true, get above the middle classes of society, but there she is inimitable. (Journal, 18/9/1827)

Waverley

Waverley book coverWaverley is regarded as the first work of historical fiction. Its subtitle, “Or, Sixty years since”, tells us its historical setting, which is, specifically, the Jacobite uprising of 1745. The plot concerns Edward Waverley, an idealistic, impractical young man who joins the army, and is sent to the Scottish Highlands. He meets passionate Scottish patriots, Fergus and his sister Flora, who support Prince Charles Edward Stuart (aka Bonnie Prince Charlie), and is attracted to their cause. Not a wise move! Initially published anonymously, Waverley was a big success, marking, says Penguin’s blurb, “the start of his extraordinary literary success”.

So, why do I like it, and yet am not planning to finish it? I like it for its humour and Austen-like observations on human nature. I like the way the novel starts with Scott, as first person narrator, explaining why he chose his character Waverley’s name (“an uncontaminated name, bearing with its sound little of good or evil, excepting what the reader shall be hereafter pleased to affix to it”), and clarifying what sort of novel he was writing. He lists various possibilities – including Gothic, Romance, Sentimental – and then concludes:

By fixing then the date of my story Sixty Years before this present 1st November, 1805, I would have my readers understand that they will meet in the following pages neither a romance of chivalry, nor a tale of modern manners; that my hero will neither have iron on  his shoulders, as of yore, nor on the heels of his boots, as is the present fashion of Bond Street; and that my damsels will neither be clothed “in purple and in pall,” like the Lady Alice of an old ballad, nor reduced to the primitive nakedness of a modern fashionable at a route. From this my choice of an æra the understanding critic may farther presage, that the object of my tale is more a description of men than manners.

Examples of his Austen-like observations, include:

Where we are not at ease, we cannot be happy; and therefore it is not surprising, that Edward Waverley supposed that he disliked and was unfitted for society, merely because he had not yet acquired the habit of living in it with ease and comfort, and of reciprocally giving and receiving pleasure; (Ch. 4)

AND

There is no better antidote against entertaining too high an opinion of others, than having an excellent one of ourselves at the very same time. (Ch. 5)

There are many satirical or humorous comments made in this first volume, such this to the modern “soft” education methods:

I am aware I may be here reminded of the necessity of rendering instruction agreeable to youth, and of Tasso’s infusion of honey into the medicine prepared for a child;

Unfortunately, this method, he argues, did not serve our young hero well:

With a desire of amusement therefore, which better discipline might soon have converted into a thirst for knowledge, young Waverley drove through the sea of books, like a vessel without a pilot or a rudder.

Don’t you love that image, “like a vessel without a rudder”? Anyhow, he then elaborates on the ills of unstructured, uncritical reading.

Later, he describes Waverley’s arrival in the Highlands:

Three or four village girls, returning from the well or brook with pitchers and pails upon their heads, formed more pleasing objects, and with their thin short-gowns and single petticoats, bare arms, legs, and feet, uncovered heads and braided hair, somewhat resembled Italian forms of landscape. Nor could a lover of the picturesque have challenged either the elegance of their costume, or the symmetry of their shape, although, to say the truth, a mere Englishman, in search of the comfortable, a word peculiar to his native tongue, might have wished the clothes less scanty, the feet and legs somewhat protected from the weather, the head and complexion shrouded from the sun, or perhaps might even have thought the whole person and dress considerably improved by a plentiful application of spring water, with a quantum sufficit of soap. The whole scene was depressing, for it argued, at the first glance, at least a stagnation of industry, and perhaps of intellect.

This paragraph has so much in it: the cheeky reference to the mania for “the picturesque“, the “dig” at the English (and their preference for comfort, and, by implication, for “niceness”), and the social commentary regarding the poverty of the peasants.

Now, I know some people don’t like authors who talk to you. I understand it destroys their engagement – the fantasy that what they are reading is “real” – but I don’t feel that way. It could be argued, I think, that this style particularly suits historical fiction because it can remind us that this is someone telling us a story and that we need to think about what we are being told? Anyhow, I did start Volume 2, which opens:

Shall this be a short or a long chapter?—This is a question in which you, gentle reader, have no vote, however much you may be interested in the consequences; just as probably you may (like myself) have nothing to do with the imposing a new tax, excepting the trifling circumstance of being obliged to pay it.

Haha, eh?

However, the book is slow reading. There are so many long descriptions, and, in my Kindle version, the frequently appearing blue-links to footnotes kept distracting my eye, regardless of whether I decided to click on them or not! I just can’t love it enough, right now, to finish it.

So, I’ll leave you with Penguin’s praise that “with its vivid depiction of the wild Highland landscapes and patriotic clansmen, Waverley is a brilliant evocation of the old Scotland – a world Scott believed was swiftly disappearing in the face of a new, modern era.” Scott’s heart was in the right place. He treated his oppressed characters (peasants, for example) with respect, and he recognised that defeat was often accompanied by loss of culture. He is worth reading!

Sir Walter Scott
Waverley, Vol. 1
Penguin Classics, 2004 (Orig. pub. 1814)
388pp.
ASIN: B002RI9IQU
ISBN: 978-0140430714

Anton Chekhov, The lady with the little dog (#Review)

Penguin collection, translated by Wilks, book cover“The lady and with the little dog” was an out-of-left-field recommendation for my reading group for two reasons. One is that it is a single short story – not even a whole collection which we have done before. And the other is that the member who recommended it did so on the basis of its being referred to a few times in Sebastian Smee’s recent Quarterly Essay (72), Net loss: The inner life in the digital age, which I’ll review next, hopefully.

So, what to read? We were as a group challenged, albeit was a good challenge. First, “the lady and the little dog” has appeared in many Chekhov collections over the years, accompanied by different selections of stories (though of course some individual ones do recur more than others.) Second, the story has been translated by many translators, including Constance Garnett, Ivy Low Litvinov, collaborators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and Ronald Wilks. So, do we read all or some of the other stories in the collections we variously acquired (or try, even, to suggest we all read the same collection? That wasn’t going to happen! Particularly given availability challenges.) Or, do we just read the story plus the work that inspired its recommendation? (But what about the fact that there was a mix-up not resolved until late in the month about what exactly was that work!) In the end, our being a disciplined but not controlling group, we all chose our own paths, which made for an interesting meeting.

Penguin collection, translated by Garnett, book coverNow, I have to admit that at the end of my first reading of the story – this story that is the lead story in so many collections and so must be well-regarded – I was a little underwhelmed, though why is hard to explain. After all, much as I love Guy de Maupassant’s short stories with their dramatic twists, I also love quiet stories about character, which is more Chekhov’s style. I think the issue was that I read it too fast, too distractedly, because when I reread it, Chekhov’s skill started to shine through. Chekhov, by the way, is seen as marking the transition between the mid- to late-nineteenth century realism of de Maupassant and the modernism of early twentieth century Joyce.

The story concerns an adulterous affair between 40-year-old Gurov and the much younger Anna, who meet while holidaying in Yalta without their respective, unsatisfactory spouses. Gurov’s arranged marriage was to a woman whom he considered “not very bright, narrow-minded and unrefined” and who “makes love insincerely”, while Anna sees her husband as “no more than a lackey” or “flunky” (depending on your translation!) She wants “to live life to the full”. Gurov initially sees his seduction of and relationship with Anna as “just another adventure”, not expecting to care when she returns home to St Petersburg. But, after he returns to Moscow, he realises that he’s been touched by her. Life has become meaningless:

Those pointless business affairs and perpetual conversations – always on the same theme – were commandeering the best part of his time, his best strength, so that in the end there remained only a limited, humdrum life, just trivial nonsense.

Penguin collection, translated by Pevear and Voslonsky, book coverConsequently, he seeks out Anna, and finds that she too was unhappy, and so their affair resumes.

As the affair progresses, Gurov makes a distinction between his inner and outer lives (which is what Smee references in his essay). Gurov thinks:

He was leading a double life: one was undisguised, plain for all to see and known to everyone who needed to know, full of conventional truths and conventional deception, identical to the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another which went on in secret. And by some strange, possibly fortuitous chain of circumstances, everything that was important, interesting and necessary for him, where he behaved sincerely and did not deceive himself and which was the very essence of his life – that was conducted in complete secrecy; whereas all that was false about him, the front behind which he hid in order to conceal the truth– for instance, his work at the bank, those quarrels at the club, his notions of an ‘inferior breed’, his attending anniversary celebrations with his wife – that was plain for all to see. …

What I noticed more on my second read through was Gurov’s personal growth. In the beginning, he is bored, misogynistic, and selfish. He found men boring, and preferred female company, and yet “he always spoke disparagingly of women and whenever they were discussed in his company he would call them an ‘inferior breed’”. Moreover,

Repeated – and in fact bitter – experience had long taught him that every affair, which at first adds spice and variety to life and seems such a charming, light-hearted adventure, inevitably develops into an enormous, extraordinarily complex problem with respectable people – especially Muscovites, who are so hesitant, so inhibited – until finally the whole situation becomes a real nightmare.

Penguin collection, translated by Slater, book coverThen Anna appears, and this self-centred man is suddenly possessed by “those stories of easy conquests … and the alluring thought of a swift, fleeting affair, of a romance with a strange woman whose name he didn’t even know.”

By the end, though, not only has he realised that he had “genuinely, truly fallen in love – for the first time in his life”, but that he had come to a new understanding of himself:

Anna Sergeyevna and he loved one another as close intimates, as man and wife, as very dear friends. They thought that fate itself had intended them for each another, and it was a mystery why he should have a wife and she a husband. And in fact, they were like two birds of passage, male and female, caught and forced to live in separate cages. They forgave one another all they had been ashamed of in the past, forgave everything in the present, and they felt that this love of theirs had transformed them both.

There is, however, no easy conclusion – no clever twist, no clear ending, happy or tragic.

And so, of course, as I should have realised on the first read, “The lady with the dog” (or “with the little dog” or “the lap dog” or “the pet dog”, depending on your translation) is a tight, moving, ironic story about a man who, like many of Jane Austen’s best characters in fact, discovers the errors of his attitudes, and is transformed by the knowledge.

Anton Chekhov
“The lady with the little dog”
in The lady with the little dog and other stories
(trans. Ronald Wilks)
London: Penguin Books, 2002)
(“The lady with the little dog”, first pub. 1899)
ISBN (eBook): 9780141906850

Avalailable online at Adelaide University’s etext site.

Maria Edgeworth, Leonora (#BookReview)

My Jane Austen group decided to start the year by discussing one of Austen’s precursors, not to mention favourite writers, Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849). Edgeworth was born eight years before Austen and lived much longer than Austen’s not quite 42 years – lucky her! She was also prolific, so we had plenty to choose from. According to Wikipedia, she was “during the period 1800–1814 (when Walter Scott‘s Waverley was published) … the most celebrated and successful living English novelist.” Australian academic Dale Spender supports this in her Mothers of the novel*, writing that:

If ever there was a period in the history of letters when women unquestionably led the way it was in the last quarter of the eighteenth and the early years of the nineteenth century when the only challenges to the pre-eminence of Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth came from other women – like Elizabeth Inchbald and Ann Radcliffe.

So, Edgeworth is well worth looking at, and my group gave it a good shot. Some books were read by more than one member, and some members read more than one book, but I was the only one to read Leonora. In case you are interested, here are the books we read:

  • Letters for literary ladies (1795)
  • Castle Rackrent (1800)
  • Belinda (1801)
  • Leonora (1806)
  • The absentee (part of Tales of a fashionable life) (1812)
  • Harrington (1817)
  • Helen (1834)

Now, Leonora

Its plot is essentially this: kind, newly married, well-to-do Leonora invites to her English home, Olivia, who had been exiled to France because of her unconventional, shall we say, behaviour in marriage. This was a time when divorce was shocking and required “guilt”. Sensation-seeking Olivia’s ideas about marriage are romantic:

I married early, in the fond expectation of meeting a heart suited to my own. Cruelly disappointed, I found—merely a husband.

Poor Olivia!

Maria Edgeworth, LeonoraIn Leonora, Edgeworth leaves aside her Anglo-Irish themes for an English-French one. She pits English common-sense, through Lady Leonora guided by her mother the Duchess, against French “sensibility”,  through Olivia, an English woman who behaves like a French “coquette” under the guidance of her friend Gabrielle. The novel anticipates Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility (1811), but while Marianne’s “sensibility” can be seen as teenage silliness and idealism, Olivia’s is self-centred, lacking in morality – and, unlike Marianne, she’s unlikely to change. The book critiques this sort of over-dramatic, over-blown behaviour, and makes a case for steady love based on early passion developing into deep respect and friendship!

Leonora, it must be said, does not exhibit the subtlety nor the realism that makes Austen so special. The characters tend to the black-and-white, and the discussion of sense versus sensibility lacks the nuance that Austen brings to it. Austen’s characters are more “rounded”, with sensible Elinor also capable of feeling, and emotional Marianne not being completely devoid of sense. In Leonora, sense and sensibility are presented very much as dichotomies, though Leonora is shown to have strong feelings in addition to sense, which works, of course, to her advantage in the end. Despite this lack of subtlety, the book is worth reading, for several reasons.

To start with, it’s an epistolary novel, a form which, Wikipedia says, has been around since the 15th/16th centuries. I don’t always like these novels, mainly because the letter form can break the narrative flow. I did find it a little challenging at first to work out who was who – until sorting that out became part of the fun. Given there’s no one authorial voice, it also took me a little while to work out which character/s, if any, Edgeworth, was aligning with. Was she, an Irish-sympathiser by-and-large, supporting British “sense” or French “sensibility”? However, the form provided Edgeworth with a neat way of presenting multiple first person points of view. It gave a freshness to the narrative, and enabled her to easily present different perspectives and characters. (By their own mouths shall they be known!)

Of course, I enjoyed the sense versus sensibility theme, not only because of the Austen comparison, but also because Edgeworth aligns them with national characteristics. Leonora was published during the Napoleonic Wars when England (the United Kingdom) was fearful of French invasion. It’s not surprising then that anything “French” was viewed askance. Leonora’s mother writes to her that a

taste for the elegant profligacy of French gallantry was, I remember, introduced into this country before the destruction of the French monarchy. Since that time, some sentimental writers and pretended philosophers of our own and foreign countries have endeavoured to confound all our ideas of morality.

Sensibility, then, is aligned with France and lack of morality – and, of course, vice versa for sense and England.

There is also some commentary on fiction and the novel, and that always interests me. Austen is, of course, famous for it in Northanger Abbey. (Indeed, one of the novels she references in her defence of the novel is Edgeworth’s Belinda.) Here, for example, is Leonora’s response to her mother, who had Olivia tagged at the outset. Leonora’s mother criticises Gothic novels, which Olivia reads: “they must have scènes and a coup de théâtre; and ranting, and raving, and stabbing, and drowning, and poisoning; for with them there is no love without murder”. Sensible Leonora has a more generous take:

Many people read ordinary novels as others take snuff, merely from habit, from the want of petty excitation; and not, as you suppose, from the want of exorbitant or improper stimulus. Those who are unhappy have recourse to any trifling amusement that can change the course of their thoughts. I do not justify Olivia for having chosen such comforters as certain novels, but I pity her and impute this choice to want of fortitude, not to depravity of taste. Before she married, a strict injunction was laid upon her not to read any book that was called a novel: this raised in her mind a sort of perverse curiosity. By making any books or opinions contraband, the desire to read and circulate them is increased.

Haha, I love the comment on the effect of banning books! Anyhow, interestingly, Olivia’s mentor Gabrielle, who later in the novel urges more dastardly plotting, tells her that such novels do not provide good advice for life:

Permit me to tell you, that you have been a little spoiled by sentimental novels, which are good only to talk of when one must show sensibility, but destructive as rules of action.

(And she goes on to say that “Love has been with you the sole end of love; whereas it ought to be the beginning of power.”)

I’ve been pretty brief here – really?, you say! – because each of the points I’ve touched upon could make a post in themselves. Leonora is not a subtle book, but I enjoyed reading it, partly for its place in literary history and culture, partly for its commentaries, and partly because it has a liveliness that I found engaging despite myself.

* Bill (The Australian Legend) is making a study of Mothers of the novel, starting here.)

Maria Edgeworth
Leonora
Library of Alexandria, 2012 (Orig. pub. 1806)
174pp.
ASIN: B0073UNBJC (Kindle ed.)
Available online at Project Gutenberg

Louise Mack, Girls together (#BookReview)

Louise Mack, Girls togetherWell, that was, surprisingly, genuinely enjoyable. Louise Mack’s Girls together is a sequel to her novel Teens (see Bill’s review), and features protagonist Lennie (Elinor) Leighton. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, given I know something about Mack, through my Monday Musings on her and my review of her debut novel The world is round, but it was, because …

The novel starts with this paragraph:

Square and solid as ever, stood the old brown school, with the fig-trees standing in its playground. The wooded staircase was as firm as even under the rush and onslaught of hurrying feet; the sturdy gate still bore with patience the cruel slammings of girls, big and little, rushing in late when the bell had finished ringing, or hastening homewards before half the school had left the classrooms.

It goes on to describe the chaos and disorganisation attending Lennie who is running late for her train home, and has, besides, lost her ticket. I thought that I was in for a pretty traditional school story. School stories were my favourite stories when I was a young reader, but now, of course, my interests are very different. I was prepared to persevere, however, because I was reading the book for Bill’s AWW Gen 2 Week and because this is a classic written in 1898 by a too-little known Australian woman writer. (You may wonder why I specifically chose it, but it was a serendipitous decision, being one of the books I found in my late aunt’s house when I was managing her estate. Bill’s week proved the perfect opportunity to read it.)

As it turned out, the book is not a traditional school story. School is part of it, but the focus is 16-year-old Lennie at a point of transition in her life – and her relationship with her 18-year-old friend Mabel, who returns in the opening chapters from Paris and is training to be an artist. Now, Lennie belongs to the tradition of some other famous sisters – like Judy in Ethel Turner’s Seven little Australians, Jo in Little women, and even, in a way, Elizabeth in Pride and prejudice. She’s impulsive more than sensible, but is loyal and generous of heart to those whom she loves. She lives with her parents (the Mother and the Doctor), her big brother Bert who is at University, and her little sisters, sensible Floss, gentle obedient Mary and the youngest, 11-year-old Brenda, who is observant, quick and a bit naughty. I’m sure you can recognise some of these “types”.

There is a marriage plot – but not for Lennie. This is more a coming-of-age book than a romance: it’s about Lennie’s transition from self-focused girlhood to adulthood and its associated more mature world-view. This, Mack handles nicely. Her characters may be recognisable types – but they are also individualised. Mack captures how girls feel, how they relate to each other authentically. Here is Lennie meeting her friend Mabel after two years’ separation:

You see they merely hovered on the outskirts of all they meant to say, touching things lightly, with the shyness of their reunion still lingering around lips and eyes. But as the twilight deepened, and darkness came softly into the bedroom, laughs grew more and more frequent with them.

But, there are many writers who capture relationships and communication well. What makes this book particularly interesting to read for us, now – and here I’m repeating the point made by Bill – is the social history, the picture Mack paints of 1890s Sydney, including a reference to the Banking Crisis of 1893.  The reference is brief, but it is used as a plot point in the trajectory of Lennie’s life.

More interesting, though, is the discussion of gender. Louise Mack was not, I understand, an activist in the Australian suffrage movement but she was part of the “women-oriented culture” which was becoming increasingly visible from the 1890s. Gender issues, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, underpin much of what happens in Girls together. Indirectly, it’s there, for example, in an assumption that “girls” can go to university. Whether they should or shouldn’t isn’t even discussed. It’s just assumed that they can. Direct references, though, abound. Mabel’s art teacher in Paris tells her:

‘When you go back to Australia, Mees, you just take care you do not marry, for eef you marry you will never paint better than you do now.’

And the girls themselves frequently discuss gender issues, sometimes with Lennie’s brother Bert. There’s a discussion about ambition where Bert suggests that Mabel and Lennie talk about it constantly while men, he says, never do. Does this reflect women’s increasing awareness that they can have goals beyond the domestic? There’s a reference to Lennie’s mother’s anxiety about the potential for girls failing in their push for “public” careers, and, being a woman of her times, she “would have kept them back from success rather than let them face the chance of failure.” All this is told naturally, not melodramatically, giving a realistic sense of a normal family facing changing times. We see parents having their thoughts and concerns, but supporting their children, rather than opposing them.

Nonetheless, this is a book of the 1890s. So, when Lennie is told by Mabel’s art teacher – a character respected in the novel – that “It’s better to be a good woman than a great one, little girl … unless you can be both”, I wondered what Mack really saw as options for her heroine.

All I can say is that the novel has an open ending. This may be because Mack planned to write more about the family – and she did write a third novel, Teens triumphant, in 1933 – but perhaps it also reflects an awareness that girls’ lives aren’t complete at the age of 17 or so, and that Lennie still has a chance at greatness!

Finally, there are lovely descriptions of Sydney, but again this is not overdone. In this week’s Monday Musings, I quoted a reviewer writing in 1917 that Capel Boake had “not made the mistake, very common with our writers, of painting in the ‘local colour’ so heavily that the human element in the picture is lost in what we may call a superficial provincialism of incident and characterisation.” Well, neither did Mack make this mistake, some twenty years earlier. The colour is there and is lovely, but is used sparingly to set the scene – and perhaps convey some attendant emotions:

The year was at September, when suddenly Summer came stepping down from her niche among the seasons, and ousted Spring before her time was well begun. The hot winds from the great inland plains of New South Wales blew down over the mountains to this city at the Harbour’s edge, and suddenly everyone woke from their winter cosiness, and furs and fires, and delightful nights, to find that the time for sleeping was over, and the restless nights and long, trying days of the Australian summer-time had come again, long before their time was due.

Girls together is an entertaining, refreshingly written story that clearly draws on Mack’s own experiences and concerns. It also reflects the social consciousness for which the period is well-known and, as an urban novel, it offers an antidote to the “bush realism” school which largely typifies Bill’s Gen 2 period. Well worth reading if you get the opportunity.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeLouise Mack
Girls together
London: The Pilgrim Press [n.d]
[first pub. 1898]
220pp.