Jacqueline Kent’s Seymour Biography Lecture

Last Thursday night we went to our fifth Seymour Biography Lecture at the National Library of Australia. We missed the last one in 2019 because we were travelling. Little did we know then that it would be three years before another one could be held. The Seymour Biography Lecture, which is one of the highlights on the Library’s calendar, is an annual lecture devoted to life-writing. It was endowed by Dr John and Dr Heather Seymour AO in 2005, and provides eminent ‘life writers’ with an opportunity to explore the business and craft of biography, autobiography or memoir.

Jacqueline Kent, Sept 2022, National Library of Australia

This year’s speaker, Jacqueline Kent, was introduced by the NLA’s Director-General, Marie-Louise Ayres. She has an impressive life-writing track record, including:

  • A certain style: Beatrice Davis, a literary life (2001): won National Biography Award and the Nita B. Kibble Award
  • An exacting heart: The story of Hephzibah Menuhin (2008): won the Nita B. Kibble Award 
  • The making of Julia Gillard (2009): written before Gillard became Australia’s first female Prime Minister 
  • Take your best shot: The Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard (2013): covers her Prime Ministership, and her story isn’t finished yet, said Kent.
  • Beyond Words: A year with Kenneth Cook (2019): a memoir; shortlisted for National Biography Award (Lisa’s review)
  • Vida: A woman for our time (2020)

Kent, though, first came to my attention long before these, with one relevant to my work, Out of the bakelite box: The heyday in Australian radio (1983). She trained as a journalist and broadcaster, but has also been a book editor and reviewer, and has written fiction for young adults. She was, I have to say, one of the liveliest Seymour lecturers I’ve heard, and is also the first woman I’ve heard (though 2019’s lecture was also by a woman, Judith Brett).

Kent set the tone she was to take by saying that “biography” is such an important word that maybe she should start with the great biographers of the past, like Tacitus, or Boswell, or Lytton Strachey, but she wasn’t going to. Instead, she was going to “lower the tone” and go to Donald Rumsfeld, which of course brought a chuckle from the audience. You can probably guess what’s coming and you’re right; she was going, she said, to structure her discussion by using Rumfeld’s now famous statement that

there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

She said that this oft-maligned statement does contain some truths. (Yes, agree.) It also reminds her of a quote by Artemus Ward, that was loved by Abraham Lincoln: “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us in trouble. It’s the things we know that ain’t so.” For a biographer all these knowns and unknowns can be quite a challenge.

She would these ideas, she said, through what she knows best, her own work.

Known knowns

What you know, said Kent, usually provides the impetus for starting a biography. It’s some interesting fact, or some central mystery (what made them do it, what did they think they were doing) that makes you want to investigate them. You write about them because “they are worth memorialising”. You also want to like your subject because you spend a few years with them.

Her first full biography was of Angus and Robertson’s legendary editor, Beatrice Davis, for whom she had worked. Davis was the “grand dame” – in every sense of the word. She did not like the new writers coming up towards the end of her career, like Helen Garner and Kate Grenville! Kent said that many books about publishing focus on the challenges and problems, but she want to write about what fun it also is. She wanted to give her profession its due. Also, she said, these days a book can be produced without ever seeing paper – writing, editing, publishing, can all be digital – so she also wanted to create a record of an industry that was changing.

As for Hepzibah Menuhin, she and her brother Yehudi were “rock stars” of their time. Kent’s interest here was in people with precocious talent, and what happens to them. Having been nurtured and feted as a musician, Hepzibah suddenly married, at the age of 17, a Victorian grazier and pharmaceutical company heir, and pulled back on her career. Then, she suddenly left her husband and 9- and 11-year-old sons to return to Europe. What someone to do that? She hurt a lot of people, said Kent, but had no idea of this.

Julia Gillard was suggested to her as a subject. Her interest here were what drove Gillard and what were the steps she took along her way. The mystery was what led her, as an up-till-then loyal Deputy Prime Minister, to undermine Kevin Rudd. Kent felt that Gillard had enormous dignity post-parliamentary-career, particularly in not getting involved in Australian politics, unlike others. She was a challenging subject, however, because she was guarded.

Vida Goldstein was a much easier subject because she was dead and she had no family, so there were no descendants to worry about. She had previously been written about in a worshipful way.

Known unknowns

These, said Kent, are the things you know you have to find out, the things that illuminate a subject. Often friends will share things you already know, because they think they have been privileged to know them. But some information can be hard to unearth. With Hepzibah Menuhin, a critical question was her divorce, the events surrounding her divorce. In this case, out of the blue, she had a stroke of luck when, visiting Hepzibah’s niece, she was suddenly given a bunch of correspondence written between Hepzibah and her father around the time of the divorce. This enabled her to finish the book.

Unknown knowns

This was not in Rumsfeld’s list, Kent said, but it refers to the things you don’t realise you know. Regarding her memoir about her life with the author Kenneth Cook, who was her husband for a year and is best-known for the novel Wake in fright. As she wrote the book, she realised that despite its bleakness, it had a jocular tone. It also, in fact, tells the same story as They’re a weird mob, except that this letter was specifically played for laughs. She also realised that Cook’s novel, The wine of God’s anger, is also the same story. It’s not an unusual story – the arrival of a stranger in a place unfamiliar to them – but that Cook told this story more than once was telling.

(Interestingly, she suggested that The wine of God’s anger is “the only complete Australian anti-Vietnam novel”. However, I can think of Josephine Rowe’s A loving faithful animal (my review). Any others?)

Unknown unknowns

These are the worst, said Kent. They can be the things you find out just when you are going into print, or, worse, when it’s too late.

She quoted American essayist Louis Menand who said there were two truths about historical research:

The first is that your knowledge of the past–apart from, occasionally, a limited visual record and the odd unreliable survivor–comes entirely from written documents.

[…]

The second realization that strikes you is, in a way, the opposite of the first: the more material you dredge up, the more elusive the subject becomes … One instinct you need in doing historical research is knowing when to keep dredging stuff up; another is knowing when to stop.

But, you can’t make stuff up she said, and she referenced the controversial case of Dutch: A memoir of Ronald Reagan, by Edmund Morris, which was intended to be a biography but ended up being more fiction than biography. It was “presented as a proper researched biography” but, she said, you have a contract with reader, which means you can speculate but you must flag it.

She also talked about how small incidents you discover in your research can turn out to be real “depth charges”. One example was discovering that Beatrice Davis, working at a time when women couldn’t work after marriage, had got married during lunch in a Registry Office, and went straight back to work as Miss Davis. Hepzibah’s wedding photo revealed a very strange outfit which Kent suddenly realised was Hepzibah emulating Little Bo-Peep. (She was marrying a grazier. This outfit gave insight into her expectations.)

Then there was working out Vida’s washing. Vida was always praised for her looks, not what she said. Who did her washing, to enable her to look so fresh when she was on speaking tours? Questions like this drive you mad, Kent said. Julia had always described how poor she’d grown up, but then her parents bought her a car to drive to Melbourne when she left Adelaide as a young woman. This gave insight into her family’s love and their closeness. Details like this bring your subject alive on the page.

To conclude, Kent, with a bit of a wink, went erudite, sharing a quote from the London Review of Books. She said “this is a bit pay-attention-class”! Unfortunately, I didn’t pay attention, so missed the name of the writer she was quoting, and can’t find the full quote. It started something like, the “past is more unknown than known”. A cautionary point for biographers and historians.

Q&A

There was a short Q&A, which included the following:

On biographer’s role: there’s what biographers know and the public doesn’t. Often the public has a caricatured view. The biographer’s job is to show a multifaceted person (but Edmund Morris couldn’t find one in Reagan!)

On getting family/descendants’ support: people find it flattering to have their relative the subject of a book, but problems arise when questions get close to the bone (as they did for Gabrielle Carey with the family of Randolph Stow, but she managed to get around the issue.) She struck problems with extended family in her biography of Hepzibah, and Kenneth Cook’s children were not happy with her memoir. Families are a minefield.

On whether knowing the techniques of psychology helps: no, she doesn’t find it so; it tends to be too generalised, and can lead to too many rabbit holes, which biography is full of anyhow!

That seems a good point on which close this report. It was an enjoyable and entertaining lecture, which took a fresh, practical approach to the subject.

Previous lecture postsRobert Drewe (2015), David Marr (2016), Raimond Gaita (2017) and Richard Fidler (2018).

Seymour Biography Lecture
National Library of Australia
1 September 2022

Monday musings on Australian literature: Local colour, 1920-style

Back in June I wrote a post on the Australian Literature Society’s Women’s Night that they held in 1922. This Society, which was formed in Melbourne in 1899, has played an important role in supporting and promoting Australian literature for well over a century – first as itself, and then as part of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL) with which it merged in 1982. As I’ve written before, ASAL continues to award the ALS Gold Medal which was established by the Society in 1928.

Now, I had in fact planned a different post for today, but I have had a busy weekend, and am still away from home, so have not had the time to work on that post. I therefore thought I would share another one of the delightful snippets I found some months ago about about the work of the society. The wonderful thing is, you see, that this Society’s meetings were often written up in the newspapers of the day, which provides us with an interesting insight into what the literati of the time were thinking and caring about.

And, one of those things was what made “Australian” literature. In 1920, Melbourne’s The Herald (July 10), reported on the meeting that marked the Society’s attaining “its majority”. That is, it turned 21! The meeting’s topic was “Local Color in Women’s Work”, with a paper was presented by Mrs Hilda Vroland. She argued that Australia’s women writers “did not portray very vividly those features of our life which were distinctive”. The report went on to explain what she saw as local color:

What was meant by local color was certain incidents, scenes and language which were characteristic of a particular country, and not only that, but a portrayal of an outlook on life which was typical of the class of people dealt with. Our local color was derived from incidents which immediately suggested Australian life — scenes that were truly Australian, and traits of character which had been developed by the freedom of this new land and the broader outlook.

Mrs Vroland named some writers whom she thought did produce good local colour – Doris Egerton Jones, Marie Pitt and Mary Gaunt (the last of whom Brona of Brona’s Books wrote about for the new AWW). Brona notes that some of Gaunt’s attitudes are problematical now, but nonetheless,

her short stories show a writer concerned with the role of women in society. Mary’s privileged colonial upbringing may be apparent in her writing at times, but her focus was clearly on how double standards, lack of agency and patriarchal practices negatively impacted on the lives of women.

Sounds like excellent local color to me …

Anyhow, the poet and journalist Bernard O’Dowd, who presided over the meeting, clearly agreed with the importance of Hilda Vroland’s subject, arguing that

Australians had as much right to see the universe in our honeysuckle and wattle blossom or even in the opossum’s burrow as the Englishman had to see his world in the oak-tree.

Furthermore, he was concerned, said The Herald, that Australian literature was not valued unless it “received the hallmark of the English papers”. (The old cultural cringe.) Local journals, he apparently said, “dealt almost exclusively with American literature, and ignored Australian writers”. Another speaker at the meeting, a Charles Carter, is reported as having “said that he “was gratified to know that the women writers quoted did not wholly rely upon the use of slang, horse-racing or bush-ranging for local color”. According to Brona, Mary Gaunt’s stories did include bush-ranging, among other topics. But was Carter being sexist about what “women” writers should write about, or simply complimenting them because these were not truly local color?

I will close here … and simply say that I enjoyed reading about the passion of these Australians for our own literature, even if (not surprisingly) the idea of First Nations people contributing to that literature doesn’t seem to have crossed their minds. I hope you all have enjoyed this little insight too.

Audrey Magee, The colony (#BookReview)

Irish novelist Audrey Magee’s second novel, The colony, was my reading group’s August book, and it proved an excellent choice. Literary and highly readable, with vivid characters and a sophisticated exploration of its subject matter, The colony engaged us on all levels. It was longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize (and may yet be shortlisted. We will know next week.)

The novel’s overall subject is, as the title implies, colonisation – and Magee teases out its personal, cultural and political ramifications through a small island colony off the west coast of the Republic of Ireland. The word colony, like much in this book, is multi-layered. The novel is set over the summer of 1979, easily dated for readers by reporting of the assassination of Louis Mountbatten in August 1979.

“the battle of the colonisers”

The colony is carefully structured, with chapters about what’s happening on the island alternated with reports of sectarian killings from the Troubles in the north. These reports are brief, stark, and devastating, and serve as a constant reminder of what colonisation can do. But these reports are just one of the layers in the novel, which starts with the arrival of the ambitious British artist Lloyd (whose name is not random. He has plenty of money!)

Lloyd is coming to the island to make his name. He is a modern colonialist in the way he assumes he can buy what he needs, and manipulate others, to achieve his goal. He promises, for example, to respect the islanders’ wishes that he not paint them, but this doesn’t last. The way Magee unfolds his role is clever and subtle, because the islanders, whose numbers have dwindled to twelve families, want and need his money to survive. His perspective is told through terse, poetic language.

Arriving soon after Lloyd is the French linguist, JP Masson. He has been visiting this Gaelic-speaking island for years, undertaking a longitudinal study of the island’s linguistic patterns for his PhD. JP is fierce about the need for the islanders’ language to preserved as is. He resents the infiltration of any English into the island, so Lloyd’s appearance is the last straw. It will, he believes, force a “sudden and violent ” shift to English, instead of the slow “linguistic evolution” to bilingualism that was under way:

The Irish here was almost pure, Lloyd, tainted only by the schoolchildren learning English, by the intermittent visits of emigrants returning from Boston and London with their sophisticated otherness, and by mercenaries in linguistic mediation, men like [islander] Micheál who want only to communicate, indifferent to the medium or its need for protection  …

JP’s perspective is told through the carefully thought prose of a writer, though when he is writing his paper on colonisation and language, I found it a bit heavy-handed, a bit too much of the telling not showing.

However, this issue of maintaining language – and its relationship to the colonial project – is intelligently explored. JP argues uncompromisingly for preserving the language, because it “carries their history, their thinking, their being”, and resists the fact that languages change. He rides roughshod over the islanders, insisting that they must use their language. Lloyd, on the other hand, wipes his hands of the issue, “not my concern” he says. Meanwhile, the islanders go about their business, continuing to speak their language with each other, while being willing to use English where it benefits them. They are no fools, for all JP’s exhortations:

What do you think, Micheál? said Masson. Are you less Irish when you speak English?
I don’t talk politics, Masson. You know that.
We’re talking about language, Micheál.
Same thing

Just this topic alone, and how Magee uses it to expose colonialism’s short, medium and long tail, could take up a whole review.

Throughout the novel, the islanders are caught in the middle, but maintain a healthy perspective:

Imagine that, said Mairéad. A Frenchman and an Englishman squabbling over our turf. 
They’ve been squabbling over our turf for centuries, said Francis. 

There is a wonderful, dry humour in this novel. And much of it comes from the islanders, who have their own way of dealing with things. But they, too, are not united. The matriarch, 89-year-old Bean Uí Fhloinn supports the old ways, and is a perfect subject for JP’s research, while her granddaughter Mairéad tends to be the voice of humane or sometimes just resigned reason. Her son James sees Lloyd as his way out. He doesn’t want to be a fisherman, as all the men before him have been (including his drowned father, grandfather and uncle). He shows real talent as an artist, and believes Lloyd’s promise to take him back to England at the end of summer.

And so, as summer progresses, tensions increase, between Lloyd and JP (who both come from colonising nations, for all JPs attempts to ignore his own complicated origins), but also between the islanders as they respond to what’s happening on the island and up north. They comment on the violence in the news reports. In one telling moment, Mairéad and her brother-in-law Francis discuss the Mountbatten assassination in which two teenage boys were also killed. For Mairéad this is wrong, whilst for Francis it’s “collateral damage”:

Where does this end, Francis?
In a united Ireland, Mairéad. One free of British rule.
And you’ll blow up innocent children to get it. Mairéad swallowed the last of her whiskey. You’re pathetic, Francis Gillan.

Violence is a constant presence in the book, from the relentless news reports to young James’ brutal killing of rabbits for food. Francis hangs over the novel ominously. What does he do on the mainland? What will he do to “get” Mairéad, for whom, she knows, he is “Waiting. In the long grass. Waiting for me to fall flat on my face so that he can pick me up and make me his.”

I am interested in this issue of violence and how it permeates society. It’s what I think Tsiolkas was on about in The slap (my review). When people are confronted with violence on a regular basis, how do they respond? How should they respond?

Another issue Magee explores is art. While Lloyd hides away, painting his magnum opus – which draws inspiration from Gauguin (another artist who worked in a colonial, exploitative environment) – the islanders discuss whether they should be worried. Is it “just” art, or something else?

James clearly understands that art has meaning, and recognises the message in Lloyd’s final painting:

It’s me as you want me to be seen, Mr Lloyd. As you want me to be interpreted.

It’s certainly not James as he wants to be seen. It’s a cruel scene, particularly given Lloyd’s earlier lofty dreams of showing “that art is greater than politics. Art as peacemaker, as bridge builder.”

Truly, The colony is, to use a favourite word of the islanders, a “grand” book. The writing is expressive, with various motifs running through it – like rabbits, apples, smells – and refrains, like “young widow island woman”. There are gorgeous descriptions of landscape and nature, and of daily life. There’s rhythmic variation, finely evoking different characters and tones. And there’s the shifting of perspectives, sometimes within paragraphs, which brought to mind Damon Galgut’s The promise (my review).

The colony recognises some of the fundamental ironies in the situation the islanders find themselves in. Both JP and Lloyd, who look like they might (or, at least could) do good, are ultimately there for their own aggrandisement. The little island colony, to which they come, functions then as a perfect microcosm of the colonised. With dwindling numbers, those remaining need to do what they can to survive, but the odds are stacked against them. It’s an all too common story, and Magee tells it skilfully, giving her novel an ending which makes its point without going for the high drama I half expected. It’s all the more powerful for that.

Coincidentally, Lisa and Jacqui (JacquiWine’sJournal) both reviewed this book last month, and both are worth reading.

Audrey Magee
The colony
London: Faber & Faber, 2022
376pp.
ISBN: 9780571367627 (Kindle ed.)

Monday musings on Australian literature: The new AWW, six months on

In February, a new AWW (Australian Women Writers blog) team, comprising its founder, Elizabeth Lhuede, Bill Holloway (The Australian Legend) and me, published our first post in our revamped blog. Six months on we have settled into a nice little routine which I’d like to share with you, but first …

Let me recap what I explained in my last AWW Challenge post for 2021. This challenge was, as many of you know, instigated in 2012 in response to concerns in Australian literary circles about the lack of recognition for women writers. By 2021, things had changed significantly with women writers seeming to be well-established on Australia’s literary scene, at least by observable measures. Because of this and some additional practical reasons, it was agreed that the challenge would change tack in 2022 and focus on past, and often under-recognised or overlooked, women writers from the 19th- and 20th-centuries. The new team decided that we would write articles about and reviews of earlier writers, and publish their actual writings – in full or excerpt form, as appropriate. Our reasoning was that Australia’s rich heritage of Australian women’s writing hasn’t been fully explored and we wanted to nudge it into the limelight.

So, what have we done? We have established the following routine:

  • on Wednesdays we publish essays or articles on relevant writers, works, or topics; and
  • on Fridays we publish actual writings, related, where possible, to that Wednesday’s post.

Bill is our commissioning editor, which means he sets up our posting timetable and approaches others (mostly bloggers we know) to contribute to our Wednesday articles, while Elizabeth schedules the Friday posts, drawing from the work she’s done, and is still doing, on locating and listing online content for past women writers. I have the easy job, being part of the ongoing consultations and keeping an eye on some of the background issues like our category and label policy and practice. Each of us also writes one Wednesday article a month, with the other week/s (given there are three of us) being a guest post.

We have not imposed a structure over the content of the posts. That is, we have not decided to explore past Australian women writers chronologically or geographically or thematically. Instead, we have drawn on contributors’ interests and experiences. This has resulted in an eclectic mix of posts, but, we believe, an interesting one, that should appeal to a variety of tastes and interests.

So, for example, Jonathan Shaw (Me fail? I fly!), who contributed many poetry reviews to the original blog, agreed to write articles on past women poets. His first was on Zora Cross. Brona (Brona’s Books) posted on Mary Gaunt, while author and blogger Michelle Scott Tucker posted on the children’s writer Patricia Wrightson and the issue of appropriation. We have also been thrilled to have contributions from overseas bloggers interested in classic Australian literature, like French blogger Emma (Book Around the Corner) on Catherine Helen Spence’s Mr Hogarth’s will, and Canadian Marcie McCauley (Buried in Print) on Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Goldfield’s trilogy.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth has focused specifically on our goal of finding forgotten and overlooked writers. Putting her research skills to work, she has unearthed writers we really never have heard of – and, along the way, has discovered some fascinating stories. Netta Walker, for example, took her on a merry chase, as did another wonderful find of hers, the case of Eucalypta (or, Mrs H.E. Russell). As for Bill, in between tracking down guest posters, he has been contributing posts on works by some of his favourite independent women, like Miles Franklin and Ada Cambridge.

Posts on topics other than individual writers and works include guest poster and literature honours student Stacey Roberts on Using the AWWC Archives, and mine on Primary and Secondary Sources.

So, six months in, we seem to be going strong, though there’s not a lot of comment engagement on the blog. More of that would be lovely.

We’d love to know whether you’ve looked at the blog. If you have, what have you liked or not liked, and is there anything you would particularly like to see? (We are open to offers too!)

Larissa Behrendt, After story (#BookReview)

Larissa Behrendt’s latest novel After story has been on my wishlist since it came out last year, so I was thrilled when my reading group chose it as our 2022 NAIDOC-Week read. What self-respecting reader, after all, doesn’t like a literary tour?

After story, for those who haven’t caught up with it yet, is framed around a ten-day literary tour of England that is undertaken by a First Nations Australian mother and daughter, Della and Jasmine, whose relationship is fraught. Through this plot device, Behrendt marries her two storytelling loves – English literature and Indigenous Australian storytelling. In doing so, she draws comparisons between them, and explores ways in which both can reflect on and enhance our lives. She also shows how travel can be an engine of change for people.

Although it contains some very dark matter concerning grief and abuse, After story is a gentle and generous read – for two reasons. First, there’s the characters. Della and Jasmine, are strong, thoughtful and, importantly, real. Both have made mistakes in managing the challenges in their lives, but both genuinely want to have better relationships with those they love. Della, the less educated and more naive of the two, is particularly engaging for her honesty and lack of pretension, for her open-mindedness, and for the rawness of her pain. The other reason is the novel’s tone. It is clear and passionate about the wrongs done to Australia’s First Nations peoples but it is not angry. This is not to say that anger doesn’t have its place – it certainly does – but it’s not the only approach to telling the story of dispossession and dislocation.

What is particularly striking about this book is its structure and voice. After a prologue in Della’s voice telling of the disappearance twenty-five years ago of her 7-year-old daughter Brittany, the novel is structured by the tour, with each day being told, in first person, by Della and then Jasmine, until Day 8, when Della’s built-up grief overcomes her. After that, the order changes and Jasmine goes first. This change marks a turning point in their relationship – albeit not an immediate, epiphanic one. It also jolts the narrative out of a pattern that had risked becoming a little too rigorous. Like a coda, it makes the reader sit up and wonder what will happen next?

What does happen, however, as I’ve already implied, is not particularly dramatic. Rather, this book emulates something Virginia Woolf said, as Jasmine shares:

The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.

Like life.

But, back to the structure. After story is one of those books in which the structure mirrors or supports its intention – and Jasmine, again, explains it well. Talking about Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’ response to it in Wide Sargasso Sea, she says, “it’s compelling, the uncovering of the other side of the story”. “Uncovering the other side of the story” is the nub of this novel – personally, in terms of Della, Jasmine, and their relationship with each other and the rest of their family, and politically, in terms of the conflicting views and experiences of the colonisers and colonised. What Behrendt aims for in this novel, I believe, is to bring people together through improved mutual understanding.

Lest this sound too earnest, though, let me reiterate my earlier comment that this novel has a light touch. To balance the heavy material, which includes a number of losses including those related to abandoned and lost children, Behrendt creates a cast of typical tour participants. There’s the white male know-it-all professor and his seemingly mouse-like wife; the feminist young lesbian couple willing to take him on at every turn; the recently retired, educated middle-class couple; the bossy woman and her down-trodden sister; Della and Jasmine; and of course Lionel, the long-suffering tour guide, and bus-driver Brett. Behrendt handles these almost-stereotypical characters well, so that, by the end, even the arrogant Professor Finn is softened for us.

There is much humour in the telling, such as this, for example, from Della as she enters the British Museum, which, she has just discovered, still holds Aboriginal remains:

As we walked into the imposing white building there was a big glass bowl with money in it and a sign asking for donations.
“We already gave,” I said to the guard who was standing next to it.

Comments and asides like this are used throughout the novel to draw our attention to the truths we may not otherwise see. Truth, in fact, is a recurring idea in the novel – the withholding and the sharing. Della, reflecting on Thomas Hardy’s first wife being written out of history, remembers stories of erasure told by her community’s elder Aunty Elaine, and thinks “Sometimes the truth matters and you shouldn’t try to hide the facts”. A little later, Jasmine is also reminded of Aunty Elaine’s wisdom:

Aunty Elaine would remind me that there is more than one way to tell a story; there can sometimes be more than one truth. ‘The silences are as important as the words,’ she’d often say. There is what’s not in the archive, not in the history books – those things that have been excluded hidden overlooked.

Throughout the novel, Aunty Elaine’s stories and wisdom, shared through the memories of Della and Jasmine, provide the First Nations’ foil to the literary tour, sometimes enhancing, sometimes counteracting the messages and lessons of English literature.

I did, however, have one issue with the novel, one shared by a few in my reading group. This concerned its occasional didactic tone. Frequently, for example, the characters tell us what they’d learnt at various sites, such as about Jane Austen’s life or Virginia Woolf’s death. While we could see the point, the way the information was imparted did feel teachy at times. Fortunately, this tone did not extend to the novel’s underpinning ideas which are conveyed through the narrative rather than “told”.

In a Sydney Writers’ Festival panel, Behrendt said something that appeals to me, which is that the goal of being a great writer is to say something important. In After story, she has written an engaging, accessible novel, that also says important things – some subtle, some more overt, but all stemming, ultimately, from the traumas First Nations people have suffered, and continue to suffer, at the hands of the settlers.

Jasmine comes to a significant realisation near the end:

Suddenly I found the museum stuffy. When Aunty Elaine would talk about it, our culture felt alive – the sewing of possum cloaks … the gift of telling stories. They were living and breathing, not relics of the past, frozen in time. Looking at the artefacts surrounding me, I couldn’t help but feel I missed an opportunity with Aunty Elaine to capture her knowledge.

She had, she continues, “rightly valued education” but she had also “taken Aunty Elaine and her knowledge for granted”.

This is the call Behrendt makes in her novel. She wants both cultures given equal respect for what they can offer us. She knows the value of stories in bringing people together. Wouldn’t it be great if her story here achieved just that?

Larissa Behrendt is a Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman

This book has been reviewed by several bloggers including Lisa, Brona and Kimbofo.

Larissa Behrendt
After story
St Lucia: UQP, 2021
307pp.
ISBN: 9780702263316

Jeanne Griggs, Postcard poems (#BookReview)

If you love travel, you would enjoy Jeanne Griggs’ poetry collection, Postcard poems, which comprises postcard-sized poems ostensibly sent from locations around the USA, and further afield. Like all good travel writing, though, these poems offer more than just simple travel.

However, before I discuss them, I should introduce the poet. Some of you will already know her, because Jeanne Griggs is the blogger behind the wonderfully titled Necromancy Never Pays … and other truths we learn from literature. How could a reader not love this? You can read about her and her blog’s name on the blog, so I’ll just add that at the back of the collection we are told that besides writing her blog she directs the Writing Centre at Kenyon College, and plays violin in the Knox County Symphony.

So, the collection. It’s divided into three parts, and each poem occupies a page – on the left of the page is the poem and on the right is the addressee (like “To Allen/Crystal Lake, IL”) plus that little rectangular box you get on postcards for the stamp. It’s a clear, simple layout, which maintains our focus on the poems’ context. The titles of the individual poems ground us further, with each referencing its subject, such as “Note on a postcard of Cypress Gardens” or “A postcard of Antelope Canyon” or “A postcard with ornamental pear tree”. There is also an epigraph, and I’ll share it because it’s perfect. It’s from Tennyson’s Ulysses: “I am a part of all that I have met; / Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ / Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades / For ever and forever when I move.”

Regarding the trigger for this collection, besides the obvious travel that is, Griggs wrote on GoodReads that “I was writing poems and fitting them onto the back of actual postcards and then sometimes I would send them to my friends and family. Very soon it became clear that this was a collection, that together the poems told a kind of story”.

Now, all this might sound a little cute, but the idea has not resulted in something formulaic or overly structured. Indeed, the poems roam through place and time, and encompass a variety of holidays and trips, some overseas to, say, the Alhambra in Spain (“Note on a postcard of the Alhambra”), and others closer to home, like visiting a child at college (“Note on a postcard of Wellington, Ohio”).

What captures the attention, however, is that alongside the expected description of a place, most poems contain more. There are reflections, some delightfully wry and some pointedly ironic, on the experience of travel – the joys and challenges, the misses and triumphs, the surprises and the ordinary – and their impact on the traveller. I enjoyed, for example, poems about attending festivals, like:

We’ve come to hear about books,
drink bourbon, and eat crawfish,
casting aside our inhibitions
like layers of clothing, extraneous
in the bloodworm Louisianna night.

(from “Note on a postcard of the St Francisville Inn”)

There are also the personal stories that made these trips worth writing about, such as memories of family holidays followed later by cards to children now grown up. There’s the mother remembering her own mother, only to recognise the pattern is repeating:

and thinking about my mother
how she would take me
to fancyhotels and
sit, saying she was content
with the view, watching me
disappearing over the horizon,
like my daughter, now.

(from “Note on a postcard from the El Tovar hotel”)

Letting go isn’t as easy when it’s you doing the letting go!

… so it was the first trip
we took without you. I missed you,
loosing my regret out of earshot,
drowned out by water roaring,
wishing I could watch you
see this …

(from “Notes on a postcard of Niagara Falls”)

The Contents list, in which a poem on Santa Monica Pier, for example, is followed by one containing a piece of the Berlin Wall followed by one from Waikiki, might suggest, on the surface, something quite random. However, reading the poems reveals subtle segues in nearby poems, from simple things like mentions of cereals (Froot Loops and Cheerios anyone?) to concepts like growing older. Books feature too. Few are named, but keen readers will spy the likes of Tolkien and Shakespeare within these pages.

There’s also some politics. One, “Note on a postcard of the Mount Vernon public square”, documents weeks of protesting, of wanting neighbours to realise that their congressman “is voting against / their health benefits, our water supply”, while another, “Note on a postcard of the Marie Laveau Voodoo Museum”, shares how a human skeleton brings to mind “desperate people feeling / no control over their lives, / the deck stacked against them”.

A couple of the poems particularly resonated with me – in addition to those dealing with family, ageing and children growing up. “Notes on a postcard of Mesa Verde”, for example, captured my own wonder about that amazing place and the people who lived there, while the opening poem, “A postcard of a mirrored room”, makes that poignant (there’s no other word for it) point about

… all the places
we’ve been, until
we get to the last one
and who will know
where that is until after
we reach a final destination.

The last poem, “A postcard from the Getty Museum”, offers a different sort of finality – the arrival of the pandemic. It’s not named, but when Griggs writes of not thinking about the crowds until “After, when the press of all / those people became unimaginable” followed by “all future plans suspended”, we know what she means.

Postcard poems is an engaging and accessible collection that uses something as relatable as writing postcards to explore things that matter. It’s nicely crafted, but also accessible. Well worth reading.

Jeanne Griggs
Postcard poems
Frankfort, KY: Broadstone, 2021
56pp.
ISBN: 9781937968885

(Review copy courtesy the author)

Miles Franklin Award 2022 winner announced

While once again I haven’t read (yet, anyhow) any of the Miles Franklin shortlist, I do try each year to announce the winner of this significant Australian literary award.

You may remember that this year’s shortlist was:

  • Michael Mohammed Ahmed’s The other half of you
  • Michelle de Kretser’s Scary monsters (Lisa’s review)
  • Jennifer Down’s Bodies of light 
  • Alice Pung’s One hundred days (kimbofo’s review)
  • Michael Winkler’s Grimmish

And the winner is: Jennifer Down’s Bodies of light

Each of the shortlisted writers received $5000 from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, with the winner receiving $60,000 prize. This year’s judges comprise, as always, continuing judges and new ones: Richard Neville (State Library of NSW), critics Bernadette Brennan and James Ley (both also on last year’s panel), and new members, scholar Mridula Nath Chakraborty, and writer and editor Elfie Shiosaki. 

So, more on the winner …

The book was published by Text Publishing, and in their email announcing the winner they shared the thoughts of Michael Heyward, Text’s publisher:

Bodies of Light  is a transformative novel that gives epic scope to the life of a single soul. To read it is to be immersed in it. All of us at Text are thrilled at the news of Jennifer Down’s Miles Franklin win, and offer her our heartfelt congratulations.’

And of senior editor Alaina Gougoulis:

‘What an incredible recognition of Jennifer Down and all she has achieved with Bodies of Light. The abundant talent on display in her debut novel, Our Magic Hour, has been fully realised in this book, an intimate story of one life told on an epic scale: heartbreaking, and yet brimming with hope and beauty. That she is still so early in her career should fill us with optimism about the future of Australian writing. I am beyond thrilled for her, as her editor and as her friend. Warmest congratulations to Jenn, from all at Text.’

The announcement has already been reported by the usual sources, like the ABC, The Guardian, The Conversation, and so on. Canberra’s Jen Webb wrote The Conversation’s article. As she says, Down already has some runs on the board: she won the Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year award for her debut novel, Our magic hour in 2017, and again in 2018 for her short story collection Pulse points.

Webb shares that the judges commended the book as “a novel of affirmation, resilience and survival, told through an astonishing voice that reinvents itself from six to 60”, and she describes it herself as follows:

Under interrogation-level lighting, it confronts the institutional “care” offered to the most vulnerable of people: little children, labile adolescents, and traumatised youth. Any society that routinely fails to provide children with the care they need to grow into secure adulthood is a society that needs a critical light shone on it. In the most lyrical, gentle language, this is precisely what Bodies of light does.

It’s a book that interests me. Indeed, Down has interested me since Pulse points appeared (and for which there is a guest post on my blog).

(BTW: In last year’s winner post, I provided a link to an article by Pallavi Singhal in The Sydney Morning Herald published an article on How to win the Miles Franklin: Analysing 64 years of data. You might like to revisit that in the light of today’s win!)

Do you have any thoughts on this year’s winner?

Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility (Vol. 3, redux)

Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility

I’ve called this post “Vol. 3, redux”, although it is my first post on volume 3. The reason is that for my Jane Austen group’s 2011 slow read of Sense and sensibility, I wrote posts on volumes 1 and 2, but not on volume 3 as I missed the meeting, and never did write up my own thoughts. This slow read, I have written up volume 1 (as “redux”), but I missed volume 2’s discussion, and again didn’t write up my thoughts. However, I did get to the volume 3 meeting and am naming my thoughts “redux” to match them up with the right re-read!

Now, a quick recap … In my recent volume 1 post, I discussed various ideas that had captured my attention, such as the novel’s autobiographical aspects, “fond” mothers, and appearance. Most of these had fallen away for me by the time I got to volume 3, but one idea that I mentioned – goodness, compassion and kindness – did not…

Triumph of kindness and generosity

From the novel’s beginning, the virtues of kindness, benevolence, generosity, charity are pitted against greed and self-interest. It starts with the sisters’ brother, John Dashwood, doing essentially nothing for his sisters while a distant cousin, Sir John Middleton, offers them a home at a good rental and supports them in any way he can. The theme continues through volumes 2 and into volume 3 where even characters who had been seen, initially, as somewhat silly if not vulgar, like Mrs Jennings and Charlotte Palmer, show kindness and compassion. They show up favourably against the greed and self-interest of Fanny and John Dashwood, Lucy Steele, and Willoughby.

Colonel Brandon is one of the characters whose kindness is evident from the start. Indeed, Elinor says to her mother near the end, that “his character does not rest … on one act of kindness”. A telling moment occurs when, in volume 3, he offers Edward Ferrars “a living”, after Edward’s own mother had disinherited him. The aforementioned John Dashwood finds this behaviour “improvident” and “astonishing” – and wonders why. Elinor responds, simply, that Colonel Brandon wanted “to be of use to Mr Ferrars”. That phrase, “to be of use”, conveys a sense of humility, of not wanting anything back, in his generosity.

It’s surely ironic when a page later, John Dashwood accuses sister Elinor of “ignorance of human nature”.

Mrs Jennings, too, who is described in the opening volume as “rather vulgar”, proves herself to be thoughtful and generous to Elinor and Marianne during their stay in her home in London. And when, in volume 3, Marianne falls seriously ill en-route home, Mrs Jennings

with a kindness of heart which made Elinor really love her, declared her resolution of not during from Cleveland as long as Marianne remained ill, and of endeavouring by her own attentive care, to supply to her the place of the mother she had taken her from.

Money is the root of …?

Money is another idea that threads through the novel from beginning to end: it is the death of Mr Dashwood which results in Mrs Dashwood and her daughters finding themselves homeless and impecunious. As the novel progresses, characters are defined by their attitude to money. There are well-off characters who are avaricious, like the aforementioned John Dashwoods and Mrs Ferrars, and well-off characters who are generous, like Sir John Middleton, Colonel Brandon and Mrs Jennings.

There are many in the novel, in fact, for whom money is so important they will sacrifice values like integrity and sincerity. Willoughby, in his confession to Elinor in Volume 3, admits

My affection for Marianne, my thorough conviction of her attachment to me–it was all insufficient to outweigh that dread of poverty, or get the better of those false ideas of the necessity of riches …

Of his rich fiancee, he says, “her money was necessary to me”.

Lucy Steele is, of course, the epitome of someone who schemes and manipulates for money, with little regard for the feelings of others. In the end, despite all her protestations of love, she is not willing to settle for the secure, if not rich, life that Elinor eventually has.

But what is it really all about?

As with all of Austen’s novels, what Sense and sensibility is about has been discussed and analysed and critiqued from literary, socioeconomic, feminist, historical, you-name-it perspectives. And, really, there is no one thing it is about. That is the joy and value of Austen. What she writes about, fundamentally, is people, and how we read her changes with our own experiences of life.

So here is where I am today. When I first read Sense and sensibility in my teens, I loved it. It was so romantic. Elinor gets her man, and is happy to live the life of an honest but not particularly well-off minister’s wife. Her sweet but overly romantic, emotional sister, gets the rich man. While that never seemed quite fair to me, as happily-ever-after stories go, I accepted it because it just showed what a person of integrity Elinor truly was. Love and esteem for an honest man were what made her happy.

And yet … what is Austen saying to us? Why do some of her heroines end up with less than dashing heroes? Well, I think it is partly because she was an early, if not the first, great novelist of realism. From this, her very first novel, she provides us with a microcosm of humanity. Like her later novels, Sense and sensibility is populated with flawed characters who represent complex humanity, unlike her Gothic and Sentimental novelist predecessors who tended to present the world in more morally absolutist, black-and-white terms. Not so Austen. Mrs Jennings might be “rather vulgar”, and a bit of an interfering gossip, but her heart is large and she’s generous. Mr Palmer, who seems cold and distant when first met away from home, shows himself to be kind and generous when a crisis occurs. And so on. Even Willoughby, despite his “selfish vanity”, is redeemed a little by his confession, and Austen allows him a reasonable life after all. I now see this confession as not being “clunky” as I’d once thought, but as important to Austen’s mission of portraying life.

But, back to Marianne. There was something that I noticed on this read that I’d never noticed before, and that concerned Marianne and her marriage to Colonel Brandon. One of the reasons I have always loved Sense and sensibility is for this quote:

Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims.

I so related to this – to the idea of proclaiming opinions before experience teaches us otherwise – that I hadn’t really seen the preceding paragraph, which concerns Marianne’s mother explicitly matchmaking Marianne with Colonel Brandon:

It was now her darling object. Precious as was the company of her daughter to her, she desired nothing so much as to give up its constant enjoyment to her valued friend; and to see Marianne settled at the mansion-house was equally the wish of Edward and Elinor. They each felt his sorrows, and their own obligations, and Marianne, by general consent, was to be the reward of all.

“The reward of all”. This sounds a bit suss! Austen continues …

With such a confederacy against her–with a knowledge so intimate of his goodness–with a conviction of his fond attachment to herself, which at last, though long after it was observable to everybody else–burst on her–what could she do?

And so, Marianne does come around to loving this good, kind man as Austen makes clearer a couple of paragraphs further on:

Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby.

The point, then, is that Sense and sensibility is not Romance with a capital-R, but a story about love – Elinor’s, from the start, and Marianne’s, eventually – that is based on genuine feeling combined with appreciation of the personal values that make a person worth loving.

There is so much more to this book but I’ll leave it here because I feel that, for now, I understand what it really is about!

Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 3, ALS Women’s Night

Continuing my 1922-themed posts, I was intrigued that, in 1922, the Australian Literature Society held a Women’s Night. This Society was formed in Melbourne in 1899, with the aim of encouraging both the study of Australian literature and Australian authors.

According to the National Library the Society:

  • held regular meetings which included talks, recitations, readings of unpublished works, musical items and reviews
  • established a general library of first editions and important Australian works which it maintained for nearly eighty years.
  • published a journal Corroboree from 1921 to 23

In 1928, it established the ALS Gold Medal to be awarded to the author of the best novel published in the previous year. The first winner was Martin Boyd’s The Montforts, but that, obviously, came after 1922! What also came later was that this society merged in 1982 with the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, which continues to award the ALS Gold Medal.

Now, back to 1922, and the Society’s Women’s Night. I’ve had a little look at Trove for 1920 and 1921, and while there are references to women’s topics being discussed at ALS meetings, it seems that 1922 may have been the first time they devoted a night to Women’s writing.

As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, there were just two papers presented: Australian Women Prose Writers, by Mrs Vernon Williams, and Australian Women Poets, by Elsie Cole. Before I share the idea that inspired this post, I did find mentions of Women’s Nights in 1927 and 1929. In 1927, The Age (July 12) reports that there was a paper on Stella Miles Franklin, followed by some readings and recitations of works by women, while in 1929, The Age (July 15), again, reported that the night would ‘take the form of a debate, the subject, being “Australia is Lacking in a Back Ground to Inspire Romantic Writing”‘.

And now, back to 1922 again. The report in Table Talk (August 3) reported that Elsie Cole’s paper on the poets said that “We had reason to be proud, if critical, of our present output of women’s work” and that “the prospect for the immediate future was encouraging”. Unfortunately, none of the reports I read gave any details about the content of the papers, so what, for example, were the criticisms?

As for Mrs. Vernon Williams’* paper on the prose writers, they reported her saying that “one outstanding feature of the Australian novel is its purity” but they didn’t elaborate. Williams also apparently said that the Australian novel was full of sincerity and the glamour of romance.

The report shared one other idea from the talk, which was that:

In the early days of Australian literature the output of women writers was more prolific than that of men writers, because the opening of a new continent did not give men opportunity to concentrate their activities in that direction.

I haven’t seen this specifically articulated before, and would love to know exactly what she was talking about. The first “Australian-made novel” novel, Henry Savery’s Quintus Servinton (my post), was published in 1830, with the first novel by a woman published in Australia, Anna Maria Bunn’s The guardian, appearing in 1838. But, “the output of women writers” did start before this. Dale Spender writes, in Writing a New World: Two centuries of Australian women writers (see Bill’s post), that from very early on women wrote letters and

women’s ‘world of letters’ provides an alternative and rich resource of information. Women’s thoughts and feelings find expression in a literature which stands as a repository for women’s consciousness and a record of their endurance in the strange land. So the letters of Elizabeth Macarthur and Rachel Henning, for example, tell a story of settlement, create heroines of stature who experience a series of adventures which could readily and reassuringly be recounted ‘back home’; but at the same time these letters plot personal struggles with independence and identity. Miles Franklin begins My Brilliant Career at the point at which Elizabeth Macarthur and Rachel Henning leave off …

Women’s letters and journals, as Spender shows, provided a rich and important literature, but novels by women did start appearing by the middle of the century with Catherine Helen Spence’s Clara Morison in 1854, and Louisa Atkinson’s Gertrude the Emigrant in 1857. Ellen Davitt followed with a crime novel in 1864, and then, in the 1880s, novels by Ada Cambridge, Rosa Praed, Tasma, and others were published.

Presumably it’s to these novelists that Williams refers, but, to suggest that, somehow, men had less opportunity to write in the colony’s first century feels like a backhanded compliment – as if women’s lives were easy, and men’s not. However, her recognition of the depth of women’s writing tradition is notable. It’s a recognition that got lost by the middle of the 20th century and that we are still trying to recover now. I must try to access Williams’ paper.

* AustLit explains that Mrs Vernon Williams is the writing name for Elvie Williams, the wife of Vernon Williams, who was “a member of the Australian Literature Society, Melbourne”. She had two articles, “Australian Women Novelists, Parts 1 and 2”, published in two consecutive issues of Corroboree : The Journal of the Australian Literature Society, vol. 1 nos. 10-11, July-August 1922, but they aren’t available online.

Previous 1922 posts: 1. Bookstall Co; 2. Reviewers on Australianness

Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility (Vol. 1, redux)

Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility

In 2011, my Jane Austen group started a slow read of her novels in chronological order of publication, which meant that we started with the 1811-published Sense and sensibility. By slow read, we meant that each month we’d read a volume of the chosen novel, given most novels in those times were published in three volumes, and discuss just that volume to see what new ideas or insights we might have. We finished the project in 2017. Having spent the last five years looking at other works by Austen (like her Juvenilia) and exploring other topics relevant to her, we decided last year that it was time to “do” the novels again. So, once again, we’ve started with the first one.

For some of you, this will seem very dry, but for those of us who love Austen, there is much to be gained from these slow reads. If you are interested in what I wrote last time on volume one, check out the post, but here I’m sharing what thoughts popped up for me this time.

First though, I’ll repeat the caveats from 2011. I’m assuming that most readers who come to this post will know the plot. (If you don’t, Wikipedia provides a good summary.) Also, this is not a formal review but simply a sharing of some of the ideas that struck me during this slow reading.

Slow reading of Volume 1

I have always liked Sense and sensibility, while my dear Mum thought it one of her weakest. (There’s no accounting for tastes! In my group there are many who will never forget that Mum loved Northanger Abbey, which some of them don’t like much at all.)

Anyhow, here goes. It’s fascinating how each read of an Austen book focuses the mind on something different. That’s the richness of Austen, and what makes her a true classic. In my last slow read, my first-volume thoughts focused particularly on the idea of judgement, and money and income. This time, other ideas came to the fore for me, some partly affected, I think, by current concerns.

Autobiographical first novel?

But first, an idea I hadn’t fully thought through before was that it could be seen as a “typical” first novel, by which I mean, it has strong autobiographical elements. Anyone who knows Austen always think of this novel’s basic set-up of in terms of her life: the fact that Austen, her mother and sister, lost their home on the death of their husband/father, and had to wait for the kindness of relations to come to their aid, just as happens to the Dashwoods. However, on this reading, I realised there were other autobiographical elements. Others in the group had come to the same conclusion, and yet none of us had discussed this last time. Curious.

So, for example, our two sisters, the younger musical Marianne and the older artistic Elinor mirror musical Jane and her artist sister Cassandra. Moreover, Jane, we believe, was lively, like Marianne, compared with her more sober older sister. If Austen did draw on herself for Marianne, however, she’s gorgeously self-deprecating – though she does present Marianne as over-enthusiastic and excitable but fundamentally sound. There are several other elements we could point to from Austen’s biography, including her flirtation with Tom Lefroy being reflected in Marianne’s with Willoughby. They are very different men, but both men are whisked away by relations from the attractive but unsuitable, ie not-rich-enough, girl.

Appearances deceive?

Perhaps partly because I’ve been listening to ABC RN’s Face Value series, I seemed to be particularly alert to the many references to appearance. Admittedly, Austen describes appearance in all her novels, but it felt pointed here in a way that I don’t recollect seeing in later novels.

So, Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon are both described as not handsome, but both are appealing for their good understanding and interested attention in others. Willoughby, on the other hand, is described differently. When he appears on the scene, having rescued Marianne from her fall in the rain, Austen says that Mrs Dashwood would have would have been grateful had he been ”old, ugly, and vulgar”, but his “youth, beauty, and elegance” gave him added interest.

As for the women, Sir John Middleton and Charlotte Palmer talk of Elinor and Marianne as being pretty and therefore marriageable, while Lucy Steele is seen by the perceptive Elinor to have “beauty” but to “want … real elegance and artlessness”. And then there’s Mr Palmer who, just like Pride and prejudice’s Mr Bennet, had chosen his wife Charlotte for her beauty not her sense. Beauty, Austen seems to be saying, is something we should not give undue credit to.

Fond mothers?

Another issue which caught my attention this time around concerned mothers and mothering. Mothering (poor or lack of) features in many of Austen’s novels. Lizzie Bennet’s mother (Pride and prejudice) is silly; Emma (Emma) and Anne (Persuasion) don’t have a mother; Fanny’s (Mansfield Park) is too busy; and Catherine’s (Northanger Abbey) is away from her at a critical time. By contrast, Sense and sensibility has several active and involved, though not necessarily great, mothers, from the loving, hands-off Mrs Dashwood to the ultimate controller in Mrs Ferrars.

Very early on Mrs Dashwood’s style of mothering is described and Mrs Ferrars’ is hinted at, in relation to the apparent growing attraction between Elinor and Edward.

Some mothers might have encouraged intimacy from motives of interest, for Edward Ferrars was the eldest son of a man who died very rich; and some might have repressed it from motives of prudence, for, except for a trifling sum, the whole of his fortune depended on the will of his mother. But Mrs. Dashwood was alike uninfluenced by either consideration. It was enough for her that he appeared to be amiable, that he loved her daughter, and that Elinor returned the partiality.

Mrs Dashwood, who is probably the most present mother in Austen, is loving but not always wise. When Marianne falls into excessive despair at Willoughby’s sudden, unexplained departure, Elinor suggests she ask Marianne directly about her relationship with Willoughby. Mrs Dashwood replies that she “would not ask such a question for the world … I should never deserve her confidence again … I would not attempt to force the confidence of any one”. Elinor disagrees, seeing “this generosity overstrained, considering her sister’s youth … [but] … common sense, common care, common prudence, were all sunk in Mrs Dashwood’s romantic delicacy”.

However, Mrs Dashwood does provide good “maternal” advice to Edward, suggesting that finding some useful employment would help him be “a happier man”. She then mentions his mother:

Your mother will secure to you, in time, that independence you are so anxious for; it is her duty, and it will, it must, ere long become her happiness to prevent your whole youth from being wasted in discontent.

We haven’t met Mrs Ferrars at this point in the novel, but earlier references to her have not suggested a particularly loving or even dutiful mother. If Mrs Ferrars is one matriarch in the the novel, Mrs Jennings is another. Austen tells us that “She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world”. She comes across in Volume 1, as gossipy, “vulgar”, but good-natured. Without second-guessing the next volume, let’s say that I think she warms as a motherly character then!

Her younger daughter, Charlotte Palmer is pregnant, but the older one, Lady Middleton, is the mother of three young children. She is the “fond mother” who “will swallow anything”. Her very existence depends on her role – she only comes to life when her children are around – and the shrewd Steele girls take advantage of this.

For Austen readers, the issue of mothers in Austen’s novels is a loaded one. Why are there so few sensible mothers in her novels? There is much we don’t know about Austen’s life, and one of the mysteries concerns her relationship with her mother. Some Austen researchers believe it was prickly. We’ll never know, but great mothers are rare in her novels – which may or may not tell us something .

And …

Other issues that grabbed my attention included the many references to goodness, compassion and kindness, and, not surprisingly, to sense and sensibility (which I briefly discussed in my previous volume 1 post).

Goodness appears on page 1, when we are told that Mr and Mrs Dashwood had shown “goodness of heart” to the uncle from whom they had inherited Norland, the estate that Mrs Dashwood must leave after her husband dies. As the volume progresses, Marianne talks of Edward’s “goodness and sense”; Sir John Middleton is described as being of “good heart”; and Colonel Brandon as having a “good nature”. These are not just words. Sir John’s “good heart” translates into real and practical kindness to the Dashwoods, and Edward values the “kindness” of the Dashwood family “beyond anything”.

I won’t continue because we’ll have to see how or whether these issues remain to the fore as I read on, or whether others will raise their heads. Instead, I’ll close one one of those insights that I love reading Austen for. It’s on Mrs Dashwood not being prepared to consider the tough possibilities (in this case concerning Marianne and Willoughby):

But Mrs Dashwood could find explanations whenever she wanted them, which at least satisfied herself.

How often do we justify things to ourselves that we’d be better not to? Mrs Dashwood isn’t alone I think. (Or, do I speak only for myself?)

Roll on volume 2.