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Monday musings on Australian literature: And now it’s booktubers

October 29, 2018
Book Stack

(Courtesy: OCAL, from

Well, actually, it’s not quite “and now” because booktubers have been around for a while – apparently. Or, so I read in an article, sent to me by occasional commenter here Neil. (Thanks Neil.) The article is from ABC RN’s The Hub program: it contains a link to the segment on the radio program, as well as a written article about booktubers. One of the booktubers has been posting videos for 9 years! Fascinating.

Here is the link on the ABC’s website, if you are interested.

It’s probably not surprising, however, that this corner of the book-internet has escaped my notice because, firstly, booktubers seem to come, primarily anyhow, from a younger generation than mine, but secondly, and probably more significantly, booktubers apparently tend to be lovers of fantasy and YA fiction, neither of which are big (as you’ll know) in my reading diet. However, we are ecumenical here at Whispering Gums in our interest in book and reading culture, hence today’s post.

So what or who are booktubers? Well, firstly, booktubers are, if I understand correctly, a subset of vloggers (ie video-loggers). In other words, they are book reviewers who, instead of writing their reviews on a blog, present them orally via a video service like YouTube.

Some Australian booktubers

  • G-Swizzel Books(Grace): Commenced 2015, with nearly 5,000 subscribers. Marvel Books, are among her special interests.
  • IsThatChami (was Read Like Wildfire): Commenced in 2014, with nearly 20,000 subscribers. She seems to do more than books, but books feature in a significant number of her vlog posts.
  • Happy Indulgence (Jeann Wong): Commenced in 2014, with nearly 2,000 subscribers. A recent vlog post of hers was about a book haul. Her audience is comparatively small, but she told the ABC that she also blogs and Instagrams about books, and has a good relationship with publishers.
  • Little Book Owl (Catriona Feeney): Commenced in 2011, with over 181,000 subscribers. According to the ABC, she’s our most popular one. Fantasy fiction is apparently her specialty. An example is her recent vlog post on unboxing book boxes.
  • Noveltea Corner (Stef): Commenced in 2014, with nearly 2,000 subscribers.
  • Piera Forde: Commenced in 2011, and now has over 32,000 subscribers. earlier this month she posted a video on setting up bookshelves in her new home. She also likes fantasy, and the ABC report quotes her as saying that “Apart from BookTube, I rarely see reviews of fantasy fiction in newsletters or in the paper.” She needs to check out the Australian Women Writers Challenge, and our Speculative Fiction Round-ups. There are many many fantasy fiction book bloggers – not newspaper reviews I know, but they are written form reviews.
  • Tilly and her Books: Commenced in 2014, with over 14,000 subscribers. YA and Fantasy seem to be her main interests.

You can find more Australian booktubers at The Noveltea Corner. I haven’t checked them all out, and some seem to have not posted for some time, but it’s a start if you are interested.

As well as talking about books, these bloggers seem to talk about their reading lives – about unpacking book boxes (their book hauls), for example, or setting up their book shelves. Apparently, according to the ABC, “book haul” posts are a “sub-genre wherein BookTubers name-check recent yet-to-be-read acquisitions.” Like book bloggers, they’ll do posts on top reads, or recommending books on a theme. Little Book Owl, for example, produced one last week for Halloween. Indeed, in my quick survey, I saw more of these general vlog posts, than ones specifically reviewing one or two books.

Interestingly, the three identified by the ABC are all young women. Most of those on Noveltea’s list are women (just a couple of exceptions) and another list I found of ten favourite international booktubers seemed to be all women too.

The ABC noted that publishers are recognising the influence of this “new wave of digital-native bibliophiles.” Digital natives they may be, but I’m loving that they love the printed book. Many of them, when describing their book hauls, comment on the physical book – on its feel, its look, its size and weight. And they do so with obvious passion and delight. They don’t seem to be heavily into e-books – which corresponds with some recent research which suggests that younger readers still prefer hard copy for their recreational reading.

Anyhow, back to the publishers … the ABC quotes Ella Chapman, who is head of marketing and communications at Hachette Australia. She says that the booktubers enable them to “tap into a readership that perhaps we haven’t been able to reach via traditional means.”

I’ve enjoyed my little introduction to this booktuber phenomenon, and love that there’s an enthusiastic bunch of younger readers out there communicating about books. Their focus seems to be different to mine, and their presentations tend to be a bit too fast and excited for me. I think I’ll stick to blogs, but supporting diversity in how we share and engage in literary culture can only be good for us all.

Have you come across any booktubers? And if you have, do you have favourites?

Delicious descriptions: EM Forster and downsizing

October 27, 2018

EM Forster, Howards EndMy reading group’s next book is EM Forster’s Howard’s end which I first read at university in 1973. (My lovely Penguin Modern Classics edition cost me all of $1.20.) It’s a delicious read and I’m falling in love with Forster all over again. My full post on it will go up some time next week, after I’ve finished it and book group is over. But, I can’t resist sharing this little section on moving house, because it feeds into all those discussions that have been happening over recent years – in the media and in my personal circles – about downsizing and decluttering.

THE Age of Property holds bitter moments even for a proprietor. When a move is imminent, furniture becomes ridiculous, and Margaret now lay awake at nights wondering where, where on earth they and all their belongings would be deposited in September next. Chairs, tables, pictures, books, that had rumbled down to them through the generations, must rumble forward again like a slide of rubbish to which she longed to give the final push, and send toppling into the sea. But there were all their father’s books — they never read them, but they were their father’s, and must be kept. There was the marble-topped chiffonier — their mother had set store by it, they could not remember why. Round every knob and cushion in the house sentiment gathered, a sentiment that was at times personal, but more often a faint piety to the dead, a prolongation of rites that might have ended at the grave.

It was absurd, if you came to think of it; Helen and Tibby came to think of it: Margaret was too busy with the house-agents. (Ch. 17, opening)

My first reaction was plus ça change. My second was how I love Forster’s language and writing, and how this paragraph (or so) shows exactly why I love the writing – the language, the voice and tone, the gentle satire and social commentary. And my third was that I must share it with you all.

Are any of you Forster fans?

Amanda Duthie (ed.), Margaret & David: 5 stars (#BookReview)

October 26, 2018

Amanda Duthie, Margaret and DavidMargaret and David, the subjects of this delightful, eponymously named collection of reminiscences and essays, do not need last names here in Australia. They are just “margaretanddavid”. But, since we have an international readership here, I should formally introduce them. Margaret and David are Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, Australia’s best-known and best-loved film critics who retired from their television movie show in 2014 after 28 years on air! There were to us as Siskel and Ebert were to Americans. Their influence was immense.

This book, Margaret & David: 5 stars, is essentially a tribute book produced on the occasion of their being awarded the 2017 Don Dunstan Award, an award established in 2003 to commemorate the late South Australian Premier, Don Dunstan, who was a major champion of the arts, including film. The book contains mostly short reflections, but also an extended essay, on Margaret and David’s contribution to Australia’s film industry and culture, and, in fact, to world film culture. The pieces are written by a wide variety of industry people, from producers like Jan Chapman, through actors like Geoffrey Rush, and directors like Cate Shortland and Gillian Armstrong, to film business people, journalists, film festival directors, and even, Margaret’s son, Josh. It’s a delightful read – but a provocative one at times too.

Of course, I enjoyed the insights into Margaret and David’s personas and working relationship – and won’t go into these. If you’re looking for gossip you won’t get it here because Margaret and David were professionals, and were, and are, we are told, good friends. Sure, they disagreed, sometimes vociferously – we all remember Margaret’s “Oh, David!” exclamations – but these arguments always teased out ideas about film. Gillian Armstrong says, “they formed a lively, fiery, passionate, laughter-filled relationship.” If, on the other hand, you’re looking for insights into the history of the Australian film industry, you will get some here. This is not an academic work, but many of the reflections on these two can’t help but comment on the Australian industry and on film culture more broadly, from the mid 1980s when they started on television to the mid 2010s when they finished. Their contribution – and impact – was not only qualitative but, in some respects, quantifiable.

This all interested me, but what I want to focus on in the rest of this post is what the book offered me regarding …

The practice of criticism

… because, fundamentally, criticism is criticism, whether you are discussing film or books, drama or ballet. I enjoyed some of the commentary on this.

Director Gillian Armstrong, while teasing (and forgiving) David about his poor review of her Oscar and Lucinda film, describes perfectly the art of the critic, when she says

It is important to have serious discussions that actually discuss the craft of the director. They shared a real appreciation of the vision behind the camera angles, the lighting, editing, music and casting. But most importantly, their reviewing was about the very heart of those films, the content and ethics.

Leaving aside the terms “review” and “criticism” which tend to be used somewhat interchangeably in the book, I think this statement contains the guts of what criticism or, shall we say, serious reviewing is about: marrying analysis of technique with exploration of content (and ethics). Journalist Sandy George, in her extended essay, puts in this way:

They actively engage in talking about the narrative, the history of the production, what the filmmaker was trying to achieve, and how the film affected them; they don’t engage in reductive talk such as “this is good”, “this is bad”, “see this”, “don’t see that”.

There’s one memorable review they did which several writers commented on: their review of the violent R-rated movie Romper Stomper. Margaret gave it 4.5 stars and David refused to rate it. This review is now famous – and part of this is for the way their discussion was conducted. It was respectful, and considered. You can see the review here.

Other practical issues are teased out – such as reviewing works you don’t like, and reviewing works by friends. On the former, Sandy George quotes David Stratton on writing reviews for “the extremely influential” Variety:

‘I never gave a glowing review to something that didn’t deserve it … but knowing how important a Variety review is, I sometimes went out of my way not to review a film.’

A valid decision I think, though purists would probably say that you should review such films regardless.

George also quotes Margaret about reviewing works by friends. They tried, she said, “not to be friends with filmmakers, but it’s impossible”. She also says:

“I’ve always been kind to Australian films because I’m such a wimp … “

Indeed, one person said that because of this, a good review from David carried more weight!

George goes on to report one distributor’s comment that

one way the pair went above and beyond for Australian films was how carefully they chose their words when one fell short.

Notwithstanding my above comment about not reviewing at times, I also like this approach. Honest reviews are important, but there are ways of being honest. The arts are tough enough, without demoralising those working hard within it, don’t you think?

Anyhow, I enjoyed this book. It’s a quick read but not a frivolous one. I’ll close with a comment made by current SA Premier, Jay Weatherill:

Their love of cinema is real, undiminished and contagious, and they have helped me and countless other Australians to understand the critical role can play in telling our nation’s stories and presenting our values.

AWW Badge 2018Amanda Duthie (ed.)
Margaret & David: 5 stars
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781743055137

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

Queensland Literary Awards 2018 winners announced

October 23, 2018

Hot off tonight’s twitter feed are this year’s winners of the Queensland Literary Awards. They combine specific state awards and awards for which all Australian writers are eligible.

Here is the whole suite of winners in the order they were announced:

  • Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance: Jackie Ryan’s Expo 88
  • Bri Lee, Eggshell skullYoung Publishers and Writers Award: Bri Lee’s Eggshell skull and Anna Jacobson, whose debut poetry collection will be published by UQP in 2019.
  • Queensland Writing Fellows: Michael Gerard Bauer, Laura Elvery and Jackie Ryan.
  • State Library of Queensland Poetry Collection — Judith Wright Calanthe Award: Michael Farrell’s I love poetry (Giramondo), which, says the Twitter feed, the judges found to be “a truly inventive book” 
  • Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer: Melanie Myers for her manuscript Garrison Town. The judges, says Twitter, described it as “a polished, multi-layered narrative”.
  • David Unaipon Award for an Unpublished Indigenous Writer: Kirstie Parker for her manuscript The making of Ruby Champion, which impressed the judges for the way it “seamlessly draws together the outback Aboriginal grassroots experience with the urban Black story”. The David Unaipon Award has brought us some wonderful writers in the past, of which, to date, I’ve reviewed four here.
  • QUT Digital Literature Award: David Henry Thomas Wright & Chris Arnold’s Little Emperor syndrome. The judges noted its “elegantly simple execution of a wickedly complex narrative”. 
  • Griffith University Children’s Book Award: Peter Carnavas’ The elephant (UQP).
  • Griffith University Young Adult Book Award: Cally Black’s In the dark spaces (Hardie Grant Egmont)
  • University of Southern Queensland Short Story Collection-Steele Rudd Award: Jennifer Down’s Pulse points (Text Publishing), which the judges described as “a daring, compelling and refreshing collection” 
  • University of Southern Queensland History Book Award: Jackie Ryan’s Expo 88: We’ll show the world (UQP), which the judges praised for its “achievement in analysing the many dimensions of the Expo story…with such pacey economy is extraordinary” 
  • University of Queensland Non-Fiction Book Award: Alexis Wright’s Tracker (Giramondo) which the judges said “is stunningly innovative in the way it brings the life and story of Tracker Tilmouth to the printed page”
  • Kim Scott, TabooUniversity of Queensland Fiction Book Award: Kim Scott’s Taboo (Pan Macmillan) which the judges described as “a confronting but ultimately hopeful book that probes Australia’s heart of darkness in poetic and masterly prose.” (Still on my TBR but Lisa has read!)
  • Courier-Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award: Beth Wilson’s Brisbane houses with gardens.

Jackie Ryan, Expo 88

Some interesting awards and books here, but Jackie Ryan is clearly the winner of the night, having won the Award for a work of State Significance, the History Book Award, and a Writing Fellowship. I should say that publisher UQP shows her books full title as We’ll show the world: Expo 88 – Brisbane’s almighty struggle for a little bit of cred.

I particularly love that these Awards include one for Digital Literature (since 2017, I believe). It’s not surprising, though, given the work being done in keeping up with new writing and publishing technologies by the Queensland Writers Centre. You may remember that last year I reviewed the Writing black digital collection edited by Ellen van Neerven and supported by the Centre’s If:book arm.

Anyhow, as always, congratulations to all the winners. What a thrill it must be.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Memorable homes in Aussie novels

October 22, 2018

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” is a novel opener that many of us will recognise, I’m sure. It comes, of course, from Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. For some reason it popped into my head recently, and it got me thinking, not about first lines, but about famous fictional houses – and whether we have any in Australia. I’m meaning houses that are (somewhat universally) known by their name – and/or by their strong presence – in the novel. There are many, in fact, throughout literature, and some are listed on a Wikipedia page for Fictional houses, like 221B Baker Street, Bag End, Howards End, and Thornfield Hall. One of the big ones for me is, you won’t be surprised, Pemberley in Pride and prejudice. It was when she saw Pemberley, Elizabeth Bennet cheekily tells sister Jane, that she started to change her mind about Mr. Darcy.

However, when I started thinking about memorable houses (or homes) in Australian fiction I came a bit unstuck. I’ve been pondering this – on and off – for a few weeks but, although I came up with all sorts of memorable places or locations, I’ve only come up with three identifiable homes (so you know what I’m going to ask you at the end of this post, don’t you!?) I’m listing them in chronological order of publication.


Ethel Turner, Seven Little AustraliansFrom Ethel Turner’s Seven little Australians (1894). It was inspired by her family’s home in Sydney’s Killara and its then bushland setting.

Misrule is introduced in Chapter 1:

Indeed at Misrule—that is the name their house always went by, though I believe there was a different one painted above the balcony—

The name, of course, reflects the unruly nature of the family life that happens within and around it. As the novel ends, and after the tragedy that my Aussie reading friends will remember, stepmother Esther wishes

there might be some chance, then, of Misrule resuming its baptismal and unexciting name of The River House.

But, oddly enough, no one echoed the wish.

Thank goodness for that … Ethel Turner’s sequel was, in fact, titled The family at Misrule, reassuring us that life for the Woolcot family will, again, not be “unexciting” in this follow-up story!

Appleyard College

Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging RockFrom Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967). OK, so not a house exactly, but as the boarding school in Joan Lindsay’s gothic-influenced novel it was the school-year home for the novel’s girls, and featured its formidable (eponymous) principal, Mrs Appleyard. The Victorian-era formality of the school and the strict controls placed on its female students are set against the sense of freedom offered by picnic fun and the mysterious, alluring Hanging Rock. Unfortunately, though, I don’t have the book so can’t share any quotes or descriptions.


Tim Winton, CloudstreetFrom Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (1991). This is, perhaps, Australia’s most famous fictional house, being the home, from the 1940s to the 1960s, of Tim Winton’s two families, the Pickles and the Lambs. There are many lovely descriptions of the house, but here is Rose Pickles just after they’ve moved into the big empty house left in a will to her father Sam:

Well, she thought, the old man had a win. Cloud Street. It had a good sound to it. Well, depending on how you looked at it. And right now she preferred to think of the big win and not the losses she knew would probably come. (p. 38)

The wins and losses, in other words, that big family homes, like Misrule for example, know all about. After this follows a physical description of the house as the family moves in, cleans it up, and explores its many nooks and crannies. How on earth, they wonder, will they fill up “this great continent of a house.” And then, along come the Lambs and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, a short – and I hope – fun post this week after last week’s bunch of rather long, earnest ones.

And now, I’d love to hear of your favourite fictional homes – Australian or otherwise – but if you are one of my Australian readers, I’d really like to hear your Australian ones. I bet you’ll come up with some that make me say, “Of course!”


Nadia Wheatley, Her mother’s daughter: A memoir (#BookReview)

October 21, 2018

Nadia Wheatley, Her mother's daughterIn Her mother’s daughter: A memoir, Australian writer Nadia Wheatley has written the sort of hybrid biography-memoir that I’ve reviewed a few times in this blog. All of them, as I mentioned in my recent Meet the Author post, have been mother-daughter stories, Susan Varga’s Heddy and me, Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister, and Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother. It’s this hybrid form that I’d particularly like to explore in this post.

And the hybrid I’m talking about is one where the biography is of the subject (mothers, in these cases) and the memoir is of the writer (the daughters.) This is the more common form of hybrid biography-memoir, though my research did turn up others, such as Room to dream by Kristine McKenna and David Lynch in which McKenna’s biographical chapters on Lynch are followed by Lynch’s responses to those.

The biographer’s question

There are, of course, many memoirs by people who, in order to tell their own story, need to figure out their relationships with others, particularly their parents. However, these books remain primarily about the writer. Hybrid biography-memoirs, on the other hand, tend to be as much, if not more, about the other person as the writer. The end result might be the writer understanding themselves more, but the focus tends to be the other. This was clearly Wheatley’s intention. Indeed she told us that her biographer’s question was “Why would a nice person like Neen marry an awful person like my father?”

So, her book’s main focus, then is her mother. Nina (Neen) Wheatley, nee Watkin, was born in northern New South Wales in 1906, and died in Sydney in 1958. She lost her own mother when she was five years old. She and her siblings were separated when her father remarried, with Nina and her younger sister Boo, staying with their father and his new wife. It became clear that the family expected Nina to be the parents’ carer in their old age. However, Nina managed to train as a nurse, and go overseas during the war as an enlisted nurse with the 6th AGH (Australian General Hospital), where she worked in Greece and Palestine. She returned to Europe after the war to work with UNRRA and then IRO, caring for Displaced Persons. It was during this time that she met the man – English doctor, John Wheatley – she ended up marrying. It was a bad decision: he was a womaniser, possessive and controlling, and, according to Wheatley, sadistic. Indeed, it’s very likely that, had he – and the medical fraternity more broadly – taken women’s health seriously, Nina would not have died when she did. After her mother’s death when Wheatley was 9 years old, she, an only child, lived with a local family known to her (and chosen by her mother before her death.) This was, for Wheatley, a problematic situation – but this part of the story occupies just the last 20 or so pages of the book, but, while it’s important to the overall memoir, I do want to move onto other points.

So, back to the form. Unlike Wheatley, those other three biographers-cum-memoirsts, Varga, Blay and Rubin, were able, as adults, to question their mothers. They could bring an adult’s eye to their mothers, and ask the sorts of questions an adult might ask. They all tape-recorded their mothers. Wheatley’s mother, however, died when Wheatley was nine, so concocting her mother’s story was a very different challenge. Fortunately – and how prescient of her – she realised that her memories wouldn’t last so, at 10 years old, she started writing down her memories of the happy times she spent with her mother and also the stories her mother had told her about her life. At times I wondered how she could possibly have remembered as much detail as she does. However, given Wheatley was clearly a writer from the start and given what she experienced was so powerful, it wasn’t hard to trust her authenticity. It’s these stories and  memories, together with letters, journals and interviews with family members and friends, and official records, that provide the facts for her mother’s biography.

Step one, then, is the research, but next comes how to marshall it all into a narrative. Varga and Rubin, like Wheatley, take us on a journey of discovery. As Wheatley said during the conversation with Halligan, she wanted to take the reader on the quest with her. She wanted to share the detective story of her unravelling her mother’s story, and not just present the evidence. Varga and Rubin do something similar, but they tell their story first person, sharing when their mother is reticent, when they, as daughters, are challenged, and so on. Varga makes it clear to her mother – and us – that this means “it won’t be her life story, not properly” but would be “filtered” through her “reactions and thoughts”, her “second generation eyes.”

Blay, however, is more formal, presenting her mother Hela and aunt Janka’s stories in their words as transcribed from her interviews with them. She intersperses these with her own perspective in italics. The three voices are thus distinct.

Wheatley, though, uses a different approach again. She tells her mother’s story third person, but, intermittently, will suddenly switch to first person to present her own role in the research or the story, removing us from Nina’s chronology to her own time-frame. Chapter 9, which relates her mother’s life immediately postwar, is a good example. The first 10 pages read like a standard biography, describing what Nina was doing, quoting from letters and journals to support the information, then, suddenly, after a reference to Nina’s father’s death, she flashes to nine years after Nina’s own death (and over twenty years after the time we’ve been in.) Nadia is dining with her Auntie Boo, and casually asks if she knows where Nina’s wedding ring is. Her aunt bursts into tears, saying:

‘Daddy’s will was so unfair! To leave everything to Neen! Not just Glenorie, but everything in it!’ As my aunt moved on in her attack, it turned out that I too was guilty as charged: ‘All those things that Nina and you had in that house at Strathfield, you had no right to them.’

Now, Nina’s father had left “other real estate to his other children” but leaving the family home to Nina rankled so much, writes Nadia, that “some of her siblings would never get over it.” After a page on all this, we are returned to Nina’s life, and the third person voice.

This approach ensures that as well as travelling the journey with Nadia, we also see the impact on her, and he sense of guilt, as she is growing up. There are many insertions like this, including one later in the book when Nadia remembers a time with her father when she was three years old. With this approach, Nina’s story is told chronologically, but Nadia’s is disjointed until after Nadia is born when her story is gradually folded in to the main narrative. It’s a tricky approach, but Wheatley, an experienced novelist and biographer, makes it work, resulting in something that provides both a coherent biography of her mother, and how it affected her. It doesn’t necessarily work if you are expecting a detailed memoir of Wheatley’s life, but that wasn’t Wheatley’s goal.

Defining moments

Interesting as all this is, however, the main joy in reading Her mother’s daughter lies in its social history of the first half of the twentieth century. Wheatley’s story of her mother’s experience as an active participant in World War 2 is vivid, and makes a significant contribution to a less covered aspect of that war. Her story of her mother’s  life in Sydney during 1950s is significant too – but terribly so.

Nina’s War “story” was fascinating. Her reports of her early experience are cheerful, full of a sense of adventure and camaraderie, but that soon changes as her real war experience starts. She sees the impact of bombing on civilians in Greece, and she nurses casualties of the Syrian campaigns including El Alamein. She already cared about social justice before going to war, but her desire to help others firmed afterwards. Her experience of forced repatriations, of seeing “Poles packed like cattle in trucks” during her work with UNRRA, was “a defining moment” writes Wheatley. Nina wrote in her journal that “This experience will have an intense influence on all my life.”

Wheatley’s description of her mother’s work with Displaced Persons is inspiring, showing Nina to be a resourceful and empathetic woman who managed to create harmony in extremely difficult circumstances. However, her marriage to Dr Wheatley saw this confident, warm woman brought undone. Her husband’s cruel, self-centred behaviour soon soured all Nina’s hopes of a happy marriage of equals. Nadia writes that he either “provoked arguments” with her mother, or set up “elaborate games in which I was the pawn he used to take the queen.” That – and his womanising – were bad enough but, when in 1956 Nina started feeling unwell, the situation became dire because Nina fell prey to a male-dominated medical system, actively supported by her doctor husband. The belief that the ills women of Nina’s now middle-age felt were all “in the mind” resulted in her eventual destruction. It’s devastating for Nina (of course) and for Nadia from whom so much, before and after, was kept secret – but, for anyone who knows or lived through the 50s, it’s only too believable.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, not all the defining moments of Nina’s life were positive ones.

Now, once again, I’ve outstayed my welcome, so I’ll conclude by saying that Her mother’s daughter is a great read for two reasons. Firstly, it provides a thoughtful, authentic – sometimes exciting, sometimes disturbing – social history of the times. And secondly, with Wheatley’s ability to write engaging narratives, it makes for engrossing, moving, provocative reading. I do recommend it.

AWW Badge 2018Nadia Wheatley
Her mother’s daughter: A memoir
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2018
ISBN: 9781925603491

Dymphna Clark Lecture: Clare Wright and You daughters of freedom

October 18, 2018

According to the University of Melbourne website, the Dymphna Clark Lecture “is delivered annually by a lecturer who exemplifies the deep commitment Dymphna Clark showed to Australia’s intellectual and cultural life.” Strangely, I can’t find a description of the lecture series on the Manning Clark House site which, I believe, is behind the lecture series. I can, however, find a list of the Manning Clark Lectures up to and including 2019 on their About Us page. Poor form I think, particularly given it was Dymphna, I understand, “who bequeathed the family home to the intellectual and cultural community with the wish that it be used to support artists and public intellectuals and provide a safe haven for the entire community.”

On Facebook I discovered that Drusilla Modjeska gave the 2016 lecture; on the above-linked University of Melbourne site that Anna Funder gave 2013’s; and on Virginia Haussegger’s site that David Headon was 2009. Drilling down to page 3 of my Google search, I found at honestyhistory that Bill Gammage was it for 2014 and on safecom that Eva Sallis was 2007. But, why can’t I easily find a list of all the Dymphna Clark lectures, as I can of the Manning Clark lectures? We could take exception to this, seeing it as, once again, sexism in action, but I’m inclined to think the reason is more mundane, and that it’s a sin of omission, not of commission. So, I now respectfully suggest that they create a new page for the two lecture series and maintain a list, with relevant links, of both series, because they are serious lectures. Clare Wright’s 2018 talk, for example, was being recorded for ABC RN’s Big Ideas program. But now, having made my point, I’ll move on to the lecture.

You daughters of freedom

Technological troubles

It was held in a lecture theatre at the ANU. Unfortunately, despite many people trying for over half an hour to get the technology working, the lecture went ahead without Wright’s accompanying slideshow. A real shame but, luckily, Wright is an excellent, engaging speaker, and easily kept our attention for the 50 minutes or so that she spoke. The lecture was, of course, inspired by Wright’s latest book, You daughters of freedom, the second in her Democracy Trilogy, she told us. Manning Clark House’s promotion for the lecture said the book:

brings to life a time when Australian democracy was the envy of the world—and the standard bearer for progress in a shining new century. For the ten years from 1902, when Australia’s feminist activists won the vote for white women, the world looked to this trailblazing young democracy for inspiration.

This epic new history tells the story of that victory—and of Australia’s role in the subsequent international struggle—through the eyes of five remarkable players: the redoubtable Vida Goldstein, the flamboyant Nellie Martel, indomitable Dora Montefiore, daring Muriel Matters, and the artist Dora Meeson Coates, who painted the controversial Australian banner carried in the British feminist activist marches of 1908 and 1911.   

I’ve started reading the book, and while I’ve only read some 40 of its 500 or so pages, I’m finding it wonderfully readable.

Anyhow, now, really, the lecture! Wright was briefly introduced by Sebastian Clark, President of the Manning Clark House and son of Dymphna and Manning Clark, and then we were off. She started by describing that famous restaurant scene in When Harry met Sally – you all know the one – which concludes with the woman at the next table saying to the server, “I’ll have what she’s having.” Wright teased out some meanings and implications of that scene in terms of women’s freedom, the #metoo movement, and, of course, her lecture’s subject, the granting of the vote to women in Australia in 1902.

“In the noonday glare”

Clare Wright, You daughters of freedomWhen Wright stated that this legislation made Australian women the most franchised women in the world, there were mutterings in the audience about, for example, New Zealand – and was followed up in the Q&A. But, I had already read Wright’s Author’s Note that opens her book, where she explains her claim. Australia was the first nation to give (white) adult women full suffrage – meaning not only could they vote on equal par with men (that is, without property qualifications, and with the same age and residency requirements) but they could also sit in parliament. New Zealand granted women the vote in 1893, but New Zealand was not a nation until 1947, and women could not sit in parliament until 1919. Finland was, in fact, the next nation to grant full suffrage to women – in 1906. I loved that she refers in this Note to something that we’d discovered on our US travels back in the 1990s, which was that women were granted the vote in Wyoming in 1869! But, Wyoming is a state, not a nation. Similarly the colony of South Australia enacted universal suffrage in 1895, including allowing women to stand for the colonial parliament, but again, it was not a nation. It was the fact that a nation had granted suffrage that apparently became a beacon for the world. Of course, proclaiming “firsts” is always risky, but Wright’s definition seems perfectly valid to me in terms of her book’s thesis.

Wright explained in her lecture that this same Act disenfranchised indigenous people. Some parliamentarians did apparently demur on this point, but those who demurred gave way to ensure that at least women got the rights. Consequently, race not gender became the dividing line. As Wright said, “white” Australia was very much the game from Federation, and, while later, some women started fighting for their “black sisters”, their first priority, after gaining suffrage for themselves, was to go to England to support the mother country’s sisters. Such were the times. Later in her lecture, Wright said that it may not be pleasing to know this about our “heroines” but it’s historically accurate!

I should confess at this point, that I’m not reporting on this lecture exactly in the order that Wright gave it but in an order suiting my main takings from it.

Anyhow, back to the granting of suffrage. Wright quoted American-born Australian suffragist Jessie Ackermann who said that this act of the new Australian nation put it/us “in the noonday glare.” Suffrage was, she said, the biggest news in the early years of the twentieth century and was simply known as “the Cause”. Australia’s actions made it/us a test site for universal suffrage and the other socially progressive laws Australia enacted in those days. Could it work? Everyone was watching – particularly of course men who feared loss of power. As Wright said near the end of the lecture:

Power never concedes anything without a fight.

Wright briefly introduced the five main women she features in her book, Vida Goldstein, Nellie Martel, Dora Montefiore, Muriel Matters, and Dora Meeson Coates, and characterised their approach to activism by giving them a canine archetype! Goldstein, the “born activist”, she described as a kelpie, for example, while Meeson Coates is a “reluctant activist” and a Weimaraner! (As past owners of Weimaraner, Mr Gums and I chuckled here.) Again, near the end of the lecture, Wright explained that she did this canine breakdown to show that these women were not all one type, and that difference is critical to the movement’s internal gatekeeping.

Wright also spoke about the challenge she faced in making suffrage, citizenship and federation exciting, particularly at this time when democracy is under attack. She quoted the recently reported Lowy Institute poll showing the surprising level of ambivalence in Australia about democracy. It’s hard to imagine in this environment, she said, that democracy and all that it involves was the hottest topic on the planet in the late 19th century. Why did Aussie women travel to England to fight for the rights for others?

Well, they were different times, of course, as Wright made clear. The turn of the century was a time of optimism. In Australia it was a trinity – new year, new nation, new century. People believed the past was being left behind; they had new Utopian visions. Women’s suffrage encapsulated all this – the ideas of rebellion, emancipation, restructuring society. Suffrage was seen as the key to unlocking repression. If women could vote, and if women could sit in parliament, women’s needs might be better cared for. As Jessie Ackermann said, the freest girls were in Australia.

The women’s suffrage banner

As she does in her book’s Introduction, Wright walked us through (our current) Parliament House to a narrow corridor past the Members’ Hall where, if you get there, you find a large banner. It was created by that Weimaraner Dora Meeson Coates in 1908 and was carried in the 1911 suffragette-organised Women’s Coronation Procession. Wright took us through its iconography/symbolism, through the implications of its depiction of Mother Britannia with Daughter Minerva. It shows, she said, the daughter Australia speaking to the mother England, the banner headline reading “Trust the Women Mother As I Have Done.” This was, she said, “allegorical effrontery.” Why had she not known about this banner, she wondered, given she calls herself a feminist historian?

Now, I could go on, but I’ve probably lost half of you by now and will soon lose the rest, so I’m going to try to become even briefer. Wright explained that one-third of her book is about how Australian women won the vote, and two-thirds about how Australian women inspired the world, In this context, she told a wonderful story about Bulldog Dora Montefiore, another Aussie woman who went to England, and her “Siege of Hammersmith”, a 6-weeks long passive resistance protest again paying taxes without representation. (She was, says Wright, seen by a young Indian man, Mahatma Gandhi!) A wonderful story. It was part of something called the Women’s Tax Resistance League. Wright also described the passive resistance campaigns against the 1911 Census: Women argued that if they don’t count, they shouldn’t be counted.

The irony of history

And so, Australian women were leaders in the suffrage movement and yet, today, British suffragettes are icons of rebellion and bravado but our Australian activists are relegated to the footnotes of academic history. BUT, she argued, Dora Meeson Coates’ banner challenges the view that this history of women’s activism is niche. The big picture is, she said, that Federation and Feminism went hand-in-glove: the banner is about colonialism, about old and new, the enfranchised and disenfranchised, about men in Australia who championed women’s suffrage and those in England who didn’t, and more …

Why then are women not sufficiently accounted for in Australian history? Because, she said, of the First World War. Federation’s optimism, she argues, was soon overshadowed by the War, which, as we all know now, precipitated a “new narrative.” So, whilst before the War, our role in the world was being seen in terms of our achievements in terms of democratic idealism, suddenly it was being seen in military terms. It was our bravery, our contribution to the war effort, that now defined us as a nation – and the rest, as they say, is history! (Particularly given, I’d add, that, as Jane Austen said one hundred years ago, “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story … the pen has been in their hands.”) From Wright’s point of view, the War represented not the birth of a nation, but the death of the nation we were becoming. Something to think about, eh?

Clare WrightThere was still more, but even I’m running out of puff now. Wright concluded by talking about the importance of stories. The stories we choose to tell are the ones that define who (we think) we are. Why, for example, she asked, is there no statue in Melbourne memorialising that significant suffragist and social reformer, Vida Goldstein? Why, too, is Prime Minister Fisher remembered more for his statements about war (about our defending the mother country “to the last man, and the last shilling”) but not his argument about “true democracy” requiring the inclusion of “women as well as men in the electorate of the country”?

Wright said she’s wary of “learning lessons” from history, preferring to think about legacies. The legacy of the suffragists is that resistance, that grass-roots movements, can create real and lasting change. Her mantra, she said, is Dora Montefiore’s exhortion: #trustthewomen. And with that, her true colours, already advertised in the borrowed suffragette scarf she was wearing, were shown!

An intelligent Q&A lasting nearly half an hour followed, but eventually we had to finish. It was a wonderful lecture. I love that not only is Wright such an accessible, engaging historian, but that she linked the past to the present, because that is the main reason I like to read history. The past is interesting, but its true value lies in how it can enlighten the present.

And now, if you made it to the end – I thank and salute you!

Dymphna Clark Lecture
RN Robertson Theatre, ANU
17 October 2018