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Jane Fletcher Geniesse, Passionate nomad: The life of Freya Stark (Review)

February 5, 2017

Jane Fletcher Geniesse, Passionate nomad, book coverMy reading group came to read Jane Fletcher Geniesse’s biography, Passionate nomad: The life of Freya Stark, by a somewhat circuitous route – and it started with my blog. One of our members had read my Monday Musings post on 19th century travellers, and suggested that we read a 19th century travel writer. Somehow, as the discussion developed, this morphed into reading a biography of a twentieth century travel writer. As young people say today, whatever!

Some of you probably know of Stark, but to clarify, she was a British-Italian travel writer, explorer/adventurer and historian, who was one of her time’s “most respected experts on the Arab world”. She lived and travelled in the Arabic states from the late 1920s to the mid 1940s, in particular, and was one of the first non-Arabians to travel through the southern Arabian deserts. Amazingly – well, it seems amazing when you’ve read the book and see what she experienced and endured – she lived until she was 100 years old, dying in 1993. Geniesse tells us that her parents both “placed a strong emphasis on stoicism”. She clearly learnt that lesson well!

Stark, Geniesse also tells us, moved among her era’s movers and shakers, including politicians, diplomats and a wide range of intellectuals. Geniesse shows her to be a strong, spirited, canny, resourceful and hard-working woman who took significant risks in order to achieve some remarkable, if not astonishing, feats. This is particularly impressive, given those highly gendered times when women had to fight for independence and recognition. She was, for example, one of very women to be accepted and recognised by the august Royal Geographical Society.

Geniesse traces in excellent, and well-documented detail Stark’s exploration of the Middle East, including, for example, her journeys into remote regions of Yemen which had seen few Europeans before. Unfortunately, the maps in my e-version are impossible to read and I didn’t have time to research every place she visited, so my comprehension of the detail is a little superficial. This excerpt, though, will give you a sense of Stark’s style and approach:

She reentered Luristan on a donkey, draped in native clothing, three Lurs at her side as guides. She bluffed her way past the border guards. (“The great and almost only comfort about being a woman,” she said, “is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no one is surprised”). (Ch. 8)

She spoke multiple languages, and was prepared to eat and drink what the locals did, sleep where they slept, and respect their beliefs, all of which facilitated her travel into remote, rarely visited lands.

Given the Middle East’s subsequent history, I was more interested in her theory about how the region should be “handled”. It was a theory she started developing when she was quite young, but further expanded over time. She promulgated it to the British and, in 1944 on a bruising British-government-suported lecture tour of the mostly pro-Zionist America. Stark wrote during this trip:

I have been thinking with more and more certitude on the wrongness of all our ways on becoming utilitarian at the expense of human relationships … the human relationship is what counts: and now that I have had time to think it all over, this has come to me so clearly that I feel I can lay hold on it as a definite philosophy and guide.

Respecting people’s sovereignty was a critical point for her, and she believed that any decisions had to be made with the Arabs’ consent. “We musn’t impose solutions,” was her mantra. That view, as we all know now, didn’t prevail.

Concluding the biography, Geniesse argues that while Stark

had not been able to affect British policy in a direct way, she had kept the flag aloft for decency, civility, and compassionate understanding.

Yet, Stark, like most people really, was a complicated person. She achieved a lot, but she also had her moments. One of the strengths of this biography is its even-handed portrayal of its subject. Geniesse shows Stark in all her glory – charming and petulant, wise and imperious, intelligent and petty – and does it with warmth, recognising Stark’s achievement and attraction for others, but also seeing her failings and sorrowing for their impact on her.

Geniesse argues that much of Stark’s paradoxical behaviour stemmed from growing up within an unhappy marriage that had broken up by the time she was 10 years old. She adored her self-centred mother, Flora, and yearned for her approval, but by the time she got it, with her successes in adulthood, the die was cast. She felt insecure about her appearance, and yearned throughout her life to be beautiful. She was also naive about some things, seemingly unaware for example, of the gay men in her midst and, disastrously accepting, later in life, a marriage proposal from one of them.

Stark made long-standing friends, and yet would also use people (and her health) to get what she wanted. She was surprisingly anti-feminist, like some other high achieving women before her, including (predecessor and self-imposed rival) Gertrude Bell. She preferred male company, and was keen to have male bosses (in preference even to being the boss herself, though she still fought for, and won, equal pay for herself from the British government). She was competitive and could be venomous, which her long-suffering but supportive publisher, in particular, tried to tone down.

Geniesse uses primary evidence – Stark’s letters, the writings of others, and interviews with people who knew her – to create her own psychological portrait of the sort of person she thinks Stark was, and why. As readers, we need to be aware that there could be other interpretations, but we can be comfortable, because the end-noting is there, that Geniesse’s picture is thoroughly researched and well-considered.

Geniesse also takes care in structuring her narrative. She starts with a Prologue summarising Stark’s significance, and then in Chapter 1 takes us to 1927/28 Lebanon when Stark was in her mid 30s and on her first trip to the Middle East. Having captured our attention by introducing Stark on the cusp of the grand adventure that became her life, Geniesse returns to her birth and childhood in Chapter 2 and thence tells the story chronologically. She uses foreshadowing, but not over-done, to make links between times and events “(“If Freya could only have known how close she now was to a fascinating life she might have been less depressed by the family responsibilities that again crashed down upon her”) or to focus the narrative (“but this was still a few years off”). Geniesse also finishes some “stories” even though Stark had left the picture, such as what happened post-war to the “ikwan” Stark had established in war-time Egypt to encourage local support for the British, and what happened to her husband after they separated.

In her philosophical book, Perseus in the wind, Stark wrote that:

the art of learning fundamental common values is perhaps the greatest gain of travel to those who wish to live at ease among their fellows.

I’ve really only touched on Stark’s life, and on Geniesse’s biography, but that’s all I can – or should – do. I’d certainly recommend it if you are interested in Freya Stark in particular, or in the Middle East, or in pioneer women travellers.

Jane Fletcher Geniesse
Passionate nomad: The life of Freya Stark
Random House, 1999
ISBN: 9781407053394 (eBook)

Six degrees of separation, FROM Fates and furies TO The Buddha of suburbia

February 4, 2017

grofffatesYou probably all know the Six Degrees of Separation monthly “meme” by now, but here’s the info for those of you who haven’t caught up with it yet. It’s currently hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest). Each month, she nominates a book, from which “players” create a chain of six more books, linking one from the other as the spirit moves. Unfortunately, for the third time in a row, I haven’t read the starting book, Lauren Groffs’s Fates and furies, but …

Arielle Van Luyn, Treading airDaughter Gums has, so I asked her choose my first link. Her first suggestions were books I haven’t read – and that’s no good because my commitment is to having read all the books I choose for the chain. So then, after some to-ing and fro-ing, she came up with a book I lent her, Ariella Van Luyn’s Treading air (my review). There’s a problem, however, because the best linking point apparently relates to a “reveal” part way through Fates and furies, so I can’t use that. The other link is that both books, writes Daughter Gums, “track a couple’s relationship history from early on (particularly when the woman was quite young) through to the demise (in different forms, though …), both track the relationship through up and down …”. I liked this suggestion not only because it enabled me to highlight a debut Aussie author, but because it lets me link to …

Thea Astley, The multiple effects of rainshadowOne of my favourite Aussie authors, Thea Astley. Treading air is set in Brisbane and Townsville, and Thea Astley was born in Brisbane, moving to Townsville for a teaching job in her early twenties. Her first novel, Girl with a monkey, is set there, but I’m linking to The multiple effects of rainshadow (my review) which explores the longterm effects of a tragic event which occurred in 1930 on Palm Island, just north of Townsville. This island was where the Australian government “sent” problematic (from the “white” point of view) indigenous Australians, but the tragedy was enacted by the “crazed” white superintendent. It did, however, involve indigenous people in the ensuing “resolution” of the superintendent’s actions, and resulted in a surprisingly just court decision.

Chloe Hooper. The tall manMy next link is probably obvious, Chloe Hooper’s The tall man (my mini-review), which is about another tragedy on Palm Island. Hooper’s book, though, is a true crime non-fiction work. It chronicles the 2004 death in custody of an indigenous man, Cameron Doomadgee, and the subsequent riot and ongoing unrest concerning the official response through criminal courts, appeals and coronial investigations. Here, though, is not the place to unravel, if we could, the truth of this situation, but Hooper’s book is an excellent read both for her coverage of the subject and as an example of a genre which we, in Australia, see as being championed by Helen Garner.

Kim Scott That Deadman Dance

And now, you probably think that I’ll link to Helen Garner, but that would be poor form I think because, having linked to two books by white (non-indigenous) writers exploring black-white relations in some way, I should (and would like) to link to an indigenous author. So, I’m going to go back, back, way before 1930, to the early nineteenth century settlement by the British of Western Australian – that is, to Kim Scott’s wonderful That deadman dance (my review). In it Scott tells the story of first contact from the local people’s, the Noongar’s, point of view.  His thesis, supported, apparently, by historical evidence, is that the Noongar were willing to work with the newcomers, but of course they were the losers in the end.

Marie Munkara, Every secret thingI’m going stay with this idea of contact, and link to another indigenous author’s book, Marie Munkara’s Every secret thing (my review). This book, which is more a collection of interconnected stories than a novel, is set in northern Australia and explores the relationship between indigenous people (the “bush mob”) and white people (the “mission mob”). The “bush mob” think they can keep the upper hand, or, at least, maintain their pride and independence. This is a very funny book, but its humour has serious bite. In the end, of course, it’s not the “bush mob” who have the power.

Hanif Kureishi, The buddha of suburbiaAnd now, partly because I really should include at least one non-Australian book, I’m going to link to another comic-satire, Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of suburbia (my review). It’s a more than appropriate link, in fact, because not only does it have over-the-top humour, like Munkara’s book, it is, also, partly about “other”, in this case about immigrants trying to make their way in England. As narrator Karim says, “to the English we were always wogs and nigs and Pakis and the rest of it”. However, unlike Munkara’s “bush mob”, Karim and his friends do manage to make some self-determining way in the world they find themselves in.

And so, this time I’ve linked mostly on content, with a nod along the way to setting and style. Not knowing Fates and furies, I can’t say whether we’ve ended up anywhere near where we started. Can anyone enlighten me?

And, if not, there’s always my usual question for this meme: where would Fate and furies take you – your first step at least?

Delicious descriptions: Freya Stark on a studied absence of curiosity

February 2, 2017

Jane Fletcher Geniesse, Passionate nomad, book coverUsually I post a Delicious Description after my main post on the book in question, but I’m reversing my practice this time, for no other reason than time. I haven’t quite finished my main post but am going to be out of town for a few days, so I thought I’d whet your appetite while I’m away.

The description comes from Jane Fletcher Geniesse’s biography, Passionate nomad: the life of Freya Stark. For those of you who don’t know, Stark was, among other things, a travel writer. She lived for 100 years, from 1893 to 1993, and was, a respected Middle East expert. Geniesse, here, quotes from Stark’s second, and highly regarded book, The valleys of the Assassins, about her travels in western Iran where few or no outsiders had been. She is commenting on how the ordinary villagers are fascinated by her, asking her multiple times to stand of the roof so everyone can see her, while the Elders withdraw, not wanting “to show interest in so negligible an object”. She draws the following conclusion:

It is a remarkable thing, when one comes to consider it, that indifference should be so generally considered a sign of superiority the world over; dignity or age, it is implied, so fill the mind with matter that other people’s indiscriminate affairs glide unperceived off that profound abstraction: that at any rate is the impression given not only by village mullahs, but by ministers, bishops, dowagers and well-bred people all over the world, and the village of Shahristan was no exception, except that the assembled dignitaries found it more difficult to conceal the strain which a total absence of curiosity entails.

This is one of the best types of travel writing, I think, that which sees the particular and then draws out the general or universal, showing us that regardless of our “exotic” locations and dress and customs, we are all much the same. Don’t you agree?

Monday musings on Australian literature: The cost of literary awards

January 30, 2017

Queensland Literary Awards LogoI must get better at noting who posts links on social media that I later take up and use on my blog. Today’s post was inspired by an article posted on Twitter (I think) early last December last (and I now thank whoever it was who posted it!) The article is by The Sydney Morning Herald’s literary editor, Susan Wyndham, and was itself inspired by an announcement by the University of Western Australia’s publishing arm to not enter books for awards in 2017.

Terri-ann White, the director of UWA Publishing, said that the “expense (of entry fees, books, and postage) and the time involved in entering books for literary awards and prizes” exceeded their resources in 2016. Wyndham explains that there are at least 60 annual awards in Australia, and this is growing. Most require an entry fee of $50-100 plus the provision of up to six copies for each book entered. In addition, as one publisher noted, there’s the rather substantial cost of attending awards ceremonies. Do you or don’t you, she said.

But, don’t awards result in more sales?

Well, not necessarily, apparently. White said that short listings and wins do not, in their experience, automatically translate into increased sales. For example, when Geoffrey Lehmann’s Poems 1957-2013 won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for poetry in 2015, Lehmann received $80,000 but UWA “saw no results whatsoever [in sales].” My immediate response was that this is probably not surprising with less “popular” literary forms. However, White’s argument regarding sales is confirmed by other publishers. Donna Ward of Inkerman and Blunt told Wyndham that “literary prizes are expensive and don’t add to the bottom line of a boutique press trying to build its business.” Giramondo’s Ivor Indyk essentially agrees too, saying that “you don’t do it for sales, you do it for your authors, and for the reputation of the publishing house”.

Allen & Unwin, by contrast, said that sales tripled for Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things after its Stella Prize win. And another big publisher, HarperCollins, said that sales of Stephen Carroll’s novel The time we have taken went from 3000 to 26,000 after winning the 2008 Miles Franklin Award, and Stephen Conte’s debut novel The zookeeper’s war went from 3000 to 13,000 after winning the first Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction.

So, here’s the rub: although over 60 literary awards are offered now, publishers told Wyndham that only the Miles Franklin, the Stella and the Children’s Book Council of Australia awards significantly affect sales. I’m guessing other awards might, like the above mentioned Prime Minister’s Literary Award, but on a more case-by-case basis?

Wyndham interviewed several publishers and found that while most plan to continue to support their authors by entering their books, there is a move, particularly among the smaller presses, towards being more careful, more targeted. Ventura Press, for example, said they are “highly selective”.

What to do?

Wyndham asked publishers how things could be improved. They suggested

lowering the fees, or removing them for small presses; reducing the number of categories to focus attention and cut fees; accepting digital copies, possibly without the author’s or publisher’s name to reduce a perceived bias towards big publishers; announcing shortlists and winners earlier so books are still in shops, and promoting those lists better.

Some good ideas here. I’d be interested to hear what authors say, particularly regarding the “blind” submission of their works; what the awards managers say about the fee/cost issue; and what booksellers say, particularly about the timing issue.

The timing issue seems tricky because books can be eligible for awards up to a year, and sometimes two years with biennial awards, after publication. I can’t see how timing can suit all books eligible for a particular award. However, it is certainly the case that some awards close their entries long before the process of long and short listing, and then awarding of the prize, takes place. Take the 2016 Prime Minister of Australia Literary Awards as an example. To be eligible books had to be published in the 2015 calendar year. Entries closed in May 2016, but the shortlist wasn’t announced until October and the winners, finally, in early November, making it nearly 2 years after the earliest eligible books could have been published. You can see their point can’t you?

The promotion issue is an interesting one – because it’s something that we bloggers can help with. I must say that I have felt a bit silly just reiterating long and short lists as they’ve been announced, figuring those interested in books will have seen them anyhow. I tend just to do a select few. But perhaps I should rethink this? Of course, my blog is small bickies in the scheme of things, but maybe it all contributes to a useful critical mass.

It sounds like, whatever we do, we need to do something, because, as the above-named Donna Ward told Wyndham:

publishers are very selective and many small and micro publishers don’t even bother. And thus, Australia misses out on hearing about its most extraordinary, vibrant writers.

And that’s a sad thing.

I’d love, of course, to hear what you have to say on this issue (and I do recognise that some readers here would rather there be no awards at all.)

Louisa Atkinson, A voice from the country: January (Review)

January 29, 2017

Louisa Atkinson, as I wrote in a post a few years ago, was a pioneer Australian writer. She was a significant botanist, our first Australian-born woman novelist, and the first Australian woman to have a long-running column in a major newspaper. It was a natural history series titled A Voice from the Country which ran in The Sydney Morning Herald for 10 years from 1860. I’ve shared here a few natural history articles/essays written by Americans, such as John Muir, but never an Aussie one. That’s going to change here, now – for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because I can, given the articles are findable through Trove, and secondly because the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge plans to focus this year, among other things, on classic Australian women writers. You can’t be a more classic Aussie writer than our Louisa!

But, which of Louisa Atkinson’s many columns should I do? I read a few and decided on one from her first year. In fact, I think it might have been the very first in the series. It’s titled “January”, which makes it particularly appropriate this month. Atkinson was living in Kurrajong, on the lower slopes of the Blue Mountains, in “Fernhurst”, the house built by her mother.

Monaro region, in January

January in the Monaro, 2010s not 1860s

So, the piece is about what it says, January. She describes the birds and plants in particular that you see in January in her region. Here is the opening sentence:

A WARM drowsy month, without the opening promise of Spring or maturing riches of Autumn.

Beautiful don’t you think, and it perfectly catches the middle of the Australian summer, particularly when you read the next couple of sentences:

In dry seasons the grass is scorched and white, the dust flies along the road before the least puff of wind, much to the annoyance of the traveller. The observer of nature finds his field of observation limited, yet not altogether barren.

In other words, it is dry, more yellow I’d say than white, and there’s nothing much happening, nature-wise. “Much” though is the operative word, because it’s “not altogether barren”, as she goes on to show by describing, for example, the activity of various birds such as the “waterwagtail or dishwasher”, laughing jackasses, lowries. Now, here’s another reason I chose this piece – her language. There’s the obvious fact that Atkinson has an engaging way of writing about nature, but what I want to explore here is its unfamiliarity.

By this I mean unfamiliar expressions and names. Regarding the former, I often find in articles I locate through Trove, language that is more erudite than we see in today’s newspapers. It suggests a higher level of literacy in readers. Take, for example, Atkinson’s use of “ferruginous” to describe the colour of a fungus. We might find that word in a novel these days, but not, I expect, in a general interest newspaper column. Of course, it may also suggest that newspapers were geared more to the elite than to the general populace? I don’t know enough about newspaper history to say any more on this. Sometimes, it’s more that word usage has changed. For example, Atkinson writes that some young birds “essay flight”. We rarely see “essay” used in that sense these days. I love that reading these older articles can give us insight into other times beyond the subject matter of the writing.

The other unfamiliarity relates to her naming of things. I know what laughing jackasses and lowries are – kookaburras and crimson rosellas*, respectively – but these names aren’t commonly used now. However, I have no idea what a “waterwagtail or dishwasher” is. Is it the willie wagtail and nicknamed dishwasher because its tail swishing back and forth reminded people of a dish mop? So, I did a Google search, and found an article titled “21 Facts about Pied Wagtails” from UK’s Living with Birds website. Facts 6 and 7 are:

6. Few birds have as many country names as the pied wagtail. They range from Polly washdish and dishwasher to the more familiar Penny wagtail, Willy wagtail and water wagtail.

7. The origin of the washer names is a mystery, but it may be because women once washed clothes, as well as pot and pans, by a stream or village pump, the sort of place that pied wagtails also frequent.

So, not the action of their tail perhaps but the places they frequent? I’m not a bird expert, but my understanding is that this White or Pied Wagtail is a “vagrant” in Australia, and that what we call the willie wagtail is from a different family. Which one – if either of these – is Atkinson talking about? Regardless, my point is that reading past writing can trip us up when the writers described plants, animals or objects using terms or names we don’t use now. We have to be careful – particularly those of us not expert in subjects – about drawing wrong conclusions from our reading.

POSTSCRIPT, 31 Jan 2017: Pam (Travellin’ Penguin) checked out “dishwasher” through her bird contacts, and was pointed to the book Austral English, which says that it’s “an old English bird-name for the Water-wagtail; applied in Australia to the Seisura inquieta … the Restless Flycatcher”. It quotes from the 1827 Transactions of the Linnæan Society, that the bird “is very curious in its actions. In alighting on the stump of a tree, it makes several semi-circular motions, spreading out its tail …”.

Crimson Rosellas

Crimson Rosellas by Kevin Tostado, using CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Enough of that, though. Let’s get back to Atkinson and her description of the lowries (i.e. crimson rosellas).  They are common to my garden – and her writing captures them perfectly:

A flock of lowries, young and old, frequent the fields, whence the oaten hay was gathered, nor confine their depredations there, assisting themselves liberally to the ripening peas and beans, which the gardener intended for seed, and even pursuing these favourite morsels into a verandah where they are spread to dry. The flock presents a brilliant appearance ; the full plumaged birds are vivid crimson, blue, partially pied with black, whilst the nestlings are variegated with green.

And now to conclude I’m going to jump five years to a report in the The Sydney Morning Herald in January 1865 of a meeting of the Horticultural Society of Sydney. It reports on various attendees bringing all sorts of plant specimens to the meeting, most of them exotic, and then, towards the end, there’s this:

Miss Atkinson, of the Kurrajong, sent a jar of jam, of the Lisanthe sapida, with the following remarks –

“LISANTHE SAPIDA – A small shrub of the Epacris family, bearing a crimson fruit, enveloping a single stone; good bearer, crop lasts about two months or more, coming in in November. To make jelly—boil the drupes, adding a few spoonfuls of water; when soft strain the juice off, add one pound white sugar to a pint, and boil to jelly. The fruit makes a pleasant tart—the Lisanthe Sapida grows in poor sandstone ranges. If any member of the societv would like to cultivate the shrub, and cannot procure the fruits in their locality, it is to be met with in the Kurrajong.”

A vote of thanks was given to the exhibitors, and more especially to Miss Atkinson, who it was remarked had made herself most remarkable for her endeavours to bring colonial productions into notice.

The lisanthe (or lissanthe) sapida, aka native cranberry, is, as you might have guessed, a plant native to Australia. Lovely to see recognition, by her peers, of a woman, and one who clearly loved and promoted the natural environment in which she lived.

* Mountain lowry is an alternative name for the Crimson rosella but is not, I believe, the most common one, particularly in New South Wales, but readers can correct me if I’m wrong.

aww2017-badgeLouisa Atkinson
“A voice in the country: January”
in: The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 March 1860
Available: Online

My literary week (6), this and that

January 26, 2017

Life is a bit busy at present, but I am still reading – this and that, here and there, as you do!

First, there’s politics

I’m not a political blogger so I don’t want to focus too much on politics, but I did enjoy some of the signs carried by people attending the various women’s marches held around the world last weekend. Librarian-trained me, for example, loved “Librarians for Facts”. And “We shall overcomb” appealed to baby-boomer, not to mention wordplay-lover, me. But my favourite of all was “I know signs/I make the best signs/They’re terrific/Everyone agrees”. That one’s so clever it made me laugh … or would have if it weren’t so serious.

And, talking about clever commentary, here’s one I found in the latest issue of the Jane Austen Society of Australia’s members’ magazine, Chronicle. Scattered through the magazine are what they call “Austen citings”. I loved this one from a letter in the Sydney Morning Herald back on 29 June 2016:

To explain Brexit in literary terms: 48 per cent of Britons voted for Sense and sensibility while 52% voted for Pride and prejudice. (John Bailey, Canterbury)

And that’s all I’ll say about politics because I reckon you either have to say a lot or not much … so let’s leave it at the latter.

Except, there is one issue closer to home I should mention given today is Australia Day, now also known as Invasion Day or Survival Day. It’s becoming increasingly uncomfortable for many of us to celebrate a day that is the anniversary of the beginning of our dispossession of Australia’s original peoples. Calls are being made for it to be celebrated on a different day. Would that be so hard I wonder, particularly if it would help heal wounds? There are other meaningful days that could be chosen. Daughter Gums shared a link on Facebook promoting one idea – and here again you’ll see my enjoyment of wordplay – because the date is “May 8”, as in “maaaate”! Hmmm, only trouble is that this one could be seen to disenfranchise women, but it still made me laugh. For a useful broad history of “the day” you can read historian Kate Darian-Smith at The Conversation.

Online connections

Help Books

(Courtesy OCAL, via

The Australian Womens Writers (AWW) Challenge has a new Facebook Page titled Love Reading Books by Aussie Women, and I visited it a few times last week. All sorts of discussions were happening, from people announcing their latest AWW read to convenor Elizabeth posing questions like what we’d like to ask authors of a new book coming out. She is preparing to interview, for our website, a new bunch of authors. Quite coincidentally, American blogger Stefanie (So Many Books) made a comment about this on a recent post titled “Where do you get your ideas?” She believes that authors don’t like to be asked this question, but I’m not so sure. So, while we’re here, let me ask you what you’d like to ask authors.

Many moons ago, before we were married, Canberra-based Mr Gums and I went to the wedding in Adelaide of a good friend of his. Later, that friend (and his wife) moved even further away – to Perth on other side of the continent, in fact. We have stayed in contact through our Christmas letters, and now, with improved technology, Mr Gums and his friend occasionally Skype. Somewhere along the way, this friend also discovered my blog and has started commenting on it because, like all of us here, he’s a keen reader. Unfortunately, he has been coping for some years with a chronic health condition which will require him to go under the knife again tomorrow. So, this is a big shout-out to NeilAtKallaroo, who, commenting the other day from his hospital bed, wrote “thank heavens for wifi and tablets”. Hallelujah to that. As I say to my less technologically-keen peers, do try to keep up with communications technology. It is likely to be a godsend one of these days. Meanwhile, all the best, Neil, for tomorrow.

And of course there have been books

Rebellious daughtersIt’s very unlike me, because I don’t like having my attention split too many ways, but I’m currently reading three books – my next reading group book, which is a biography of Freya Stark, and two review books from publishers, one of which is the anthology Rebellious daughters and the other a cheeky offering from local independent publisher, Finlay Lloyd. One day, in the not too distant future, you’ll see reviews for these!

So, you see, while I haven’t completed a book/book review for several days, my life hasn’t been devoid of literary content. A life without literary content would not be a life worth living, nest-ce pas?

How has your week gone, literarily (ha!) speaking?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Some Australian adventurers

January 23, 2017

Enid Moodie Heddle, Some Australian adventurersRegular readers here may remember that last year I wrote a few posts (this, this and this) inspired by books I found while clearing out my late aunt’s house. Well, here comes another. It’s inspired by a book that was probably a school text because my aunt wrote her name and her school in the front cover. The book is Some Australian adventurers. It was first published in 1944 by Longmans, Green and Co., and was edited by Enid Moodie Heddle.

I’ve never heard of Heddle but she has a Wikipedia page so is clearly of some note (given Wikipedia’s notability requirement). It describes her as “an Australian poet and writer for children”. She moved around somewhat. She was born in Melbourne (in 1904), went to high school in Sydney and university back in Melbourne. AustLit contributes that “As an infant Enid travelled around the world under sail with her Orcadian sea-captain father …”. She taught in South Australia, Victoria and England where she also researched child libraries. She then worked for publishers Longmans and Collins, becoming, after World War 2, Education Manager (for whom?) overseeing the publication of textbooks for schools and universities. So there we have it, the book probably was a school text!

From the title I thought it might comprise mini-biographies of – obviously – some Australian adventurers but, in fact, it’s an anthology of writings by Australians. Its aim, the Introduction explains, is not

to give a comprehensive idea of Australian prose, nor even to picture with any sort of completeness the country, its people, customs and history, but rather, to catch something of the spirit of adventure and joy in discovery which seem to us [who is “us”?] to be not only characteristic of the majority of the writers here represented, but also of Australians as a race.

Hmm … moving right along, the Introduction goes on to tell us that the book doesn’t contain the full stories and is “but a prelude to adventure.”

The book is divided into six sections:

  • In the land of Mirrabooka;
  • The white intruders;
  • Animals and men;
  • Further afield;
  • Strange encounters; and
  • Story and character.

Most sections, except the first one, contain more than one excerpt. Brief biographical details are provided for each writer, plus suggestions for further reading. The authors include those I know, such as Eleanor Dark, Ion L Idriess, Frank Dalby Davison, Vance Palmer and Henry Lawson, and many I don’t such as Elizabeth Bussell, William Hatfield, Hendley Herbert Finlayson. The writings include fiction and non-fiction, including letters. And the non-fiction writers include the famous adventurers, antarctic explorer Sir Douglas Mawson and aviator Charles Kingsford Smith. So, a varied bunch.

“infinite variety” (Parnassus)

I will write later about the content, but first I’ll share some contemporary reviews, though “review” is a generous name for what were mostly a paragraph or two. I found them through Trove of course. Although my copy is dated 1944, the book ran into many editions/reprints, and the earliest review I found came from 1946. The reviewer, “Parnassus” of Western Australia’s Western Mail, heads his/her piece with “there is keen interest just now in works of Australian writers”, which is good to hear given the cultural cringe which commonly typified Australian response to cultural fare. Parnassus has a rather funny formal style, commending the book with the following:

One likes the editor’s selection. It is of infinite variety, and while including extracts from recent publications she has given us a timely reminder that Australian writers have not by any means confined their writing to bush lore and descriptions of the inland …

One does, does one!

I am indebted to Parnassus, however, because s/he paid the book more attention, giving it about 6 paragraphs, than most I found. Victoria’s  Argus called it “a handy little volume” and briefly described the breadth of its contents, while Book News, in 1947, found the excerpts “wisely chosen” but said they were “spoiled by an unworthy cover jacket and frontispiece”. I can’t comment on the cover jacket as Google displays many different editions of the book, but my title page does say “with a frontispiece” without identifying who it is. Strange. Queensland’s Courier-Mail, probably describing the same edition, starts its little paragraph with “Once past an excellent, yet misleading, dust jacket to this bright little compilation, you’ll find here a book true to title”. I’d love to know which dust jacket they are talking about. Finally, one more, this time from South Australia’s Advertiser. It is also generally positive but makes this observation:

Although all of the foremost authors of this country are not represented, and the stories themselves are not indicative of the best their writers can produce, the collection as a whole can be said to be a cross-section of Australian literature.

Interesting point about not being “indicative of the best” but perhaps the best don’t represent the “adventurer” theme well. Overall, though, not a bad recommendation for a volume of less than 180 pages.

“riches in experience” (Introduction)

I like that the book starts with an Aboriginal legend. The bio for the first piece’s writer, K Langloh Parker, commences by recognising that “the first adventurers of whom we know in Australia, the land of Mirrabooka, the Southern Cross, were the Australian aboriginals”. Parker, we are told, “did us a great service by collecting their legends and retelling them in English in a way as near as possible to the original”. How did they know I wonder? Langloh Parker started doing this in the late nineteenth century. The legend included in Heddle’s book, “Beereeun the mirage maker”, came from her 1898 book, More Australian legendary tales, which was, we’re told, illustrated by an aboriginal artist.

This recognition of indigenous Australians continues in the book’s second section, The white intruders, which contains excerpts from four writers, beginning with Eleanor Dark. Her excerpt comes, as we’d expect, from The timeless land. In this excerpt, “Breaking the flag”, Dark imagines first contact from the indigenous point of view, something white writers would be unlikely to do today – and rightly so – but Dark must be admired for what she tried to do in her time.

Another excerpt in this section is from a writer I don’t know, William Hatfield, and his 1933 book, Desert saga. It’s about an indigenous man, Grungunja. Hatfield may not be well-known now, but he clearly was in 1930s  and 1940s Australia, particularly among socialist circles in which the rights and plight of indigenous people were being discussed. The last sentence of the excerpt is uncompromising. It occurs after a confrontation with white pastoralists and police. Remember, we are in Grungunja’s head:

All his generalship, all his valour had availed him nothing, then. True, his tribesfolk were unharmed, they were to be left in possession of their country, but only as a subject people.

Hatfield was, I understand, largely a polemical writer. It’s probably why he’s faded from view, but it’s also something that makes him relevant to those of us interested in the past.

Now, my aim was not to review this book but to use it to add to my project of increasing my knowledge about the history of Australian literature: who was around at different times, what were they thinking and what did others think of them? This book – and my related research of Trove – has furthered that. I could very well return to it to explore some of the other authors and topics it covers.