Mark McKenna, Return to Uluru (#BookReview)

Mark McKenna’s engrossing history, Return to Uluru, takes as its starting point the arrival in Central Australia, in 1931, of 29-year-old police officer, Bill McKinnon. Of course, Uluru’s true history reaches back into the almost-incomprehensible mists of geological time, and its human history back to the arrival of Indigenous Australians tens of thousands of years ago. But, a historian has to start somewhere, and McKenna’s choice of McKinnon’s arrival speaks to the particular story he wants to tell.

Uluru

Before I get to that, though, I would like to share my own little story. Mr Gums and I have visited Uluru three times (so far), in 2000, 2009, and 2015. Each visit, we walked around “the rock” rather than climb it, because that was the expressed preference of its traditional owners, the Anangu. In 2019, the climb was finally closed. Interestingly, each of our circumnavigations was a bit longer than the previous one, stretching from around 9kms the first time to around 11kms the last. This is because the Anangu have gradually moved the route away from particularly sacred sections of Uluru. It’s been a very slow process for the Anangu to claw back ownership of their own country and it is to this, really, that McKenna’s book ultimately speaks.

But, that’s not immediately obvious at the book’s opening. It’s divided onto four parts, with Part one, “Looking for the centre”, introducing the reader to Central Australia. It teases out the role of “the centre” in Australian life and culture, pitting its Indigenous history and significance against the early settlers/explorers’ “awe, terror and incomprehension” at what they found. McKenna writes that for the settler “to find the centre was to confront the metaphysical dilemma of being a white man in an Aboriginal country”:

What they saw as empty was layered with story … Where European explorers saw arid desolation, Aboriginal people knew a larder teeming with sources of animal protein and fat and a wide variety of plants that provided nutrition, medicine, tools and shelter.

McKenna then shifts from traditional history-writing to the personal, placing himself in the story by sharing his own experience of the Centre but continuing to reveal its history as well. This approach enables McKenna to reflect philosophically, as well as historically, on what he was doing. He conveys how confronting, and how paradoxical, the Centre can be. “It laid everything bare at the same time as it pushed all language and emotion within.” But, most significantly, he writes how actually visiting the centre “unsettled the history” that he had intended to write. So, let’s get to that.

Part two, “Lawman”, returns to a more traditional history – or biography, now – style. It tells the story of Bill McKinnon, who he was, how he ended up in the Centre, and what he did there. The focus, though, is a particular expedition in 1934 whose goal was to capture some Aboriginal men accused of killing, under Tribal Law, another Aboriginal man. One of these men, Yokununna, was shot and killed by McKinnon. This incident was to be just part of McKenna’s history but, as he wrote in Part one, it became the centre of the book when he recognised that the “biography of one moment in one man’s life encompassed the entire history of the centre and went straight to the heart of the nation’s long struggle to come to terms with its past”.

“Lawman” is the longest part of the book. Bill McKinnon was a complex man. He unquestioningly bought into the settler project and saw “discipline” as the key to maintaining control, a discipline that, of course, frequently involved brutality. But he wanted “to be both the centre’s law enforcer and its storyteller”. He was keenly interested in the centre’s history, and, writes McKinnon, had “moments of contemplation … when he became faintly aware of the depth and complexity of Aboriginal culture”. He was also a meticulous recordkeeper, and retained his records because “his desire to be present in history was insatiable”.

Part three, “Uluru”, the second longest part, returns, obviously, to focus on Uluru. Here, McKinnon comes back in the frame. He delves more deeply into the settler-era history of Uluru, interweaving it with Indigenous culture and stories. He traces the dispossession of the Anangu, as the settlers moved in, and their gradual return in the second half of the twentieth century. He identifies McKinnon’s shooting of Yokununna at the rock’s Mutitjulu Waterhole as “the foundational moment in a long history of injustice”. It is here that McKenna shows his historian’s eye for the symbolic that makes a point:

Uluru’s creation story and the frontier murder which defined the killing times for the Anangu more than any other event in the twentieth century took place at the same sacred site.

It is also in this part that we see the historian’s drive for the clue that nails the truth, and the challenge that can result. It occurs when he visits McKinnon’s daughter, and is given access to McKinnon’s archives. Remember what a recordkeeper he was? What McKenna finds transforms the story he was telling.

In the final part, “Desert Oak No. 1”, McKenna remains in the frame, as he shares more of his research journey. The focus is Yokununna (“Desert Oak No. 1”) and we start at the South Australian Museum where Yokununna’s skull had been identified. Till this point, I felt McKenna had managed well the tricky business of being a non-Indigenous historian writing an Indigenous-focused history, but I did feel he made a false step when describing the centre as a “region where darkness stalked the landscape”. The word “darkness” seems unfortunate in the context. This, however, is a small miss in a work that recovers a significant story and carefully places it within the context of the return of Uluru to the Anangu in 1983, and the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart. Returnng Uluru to its rightful owners is a win for all Australians because Uluru is the spiritual heart of our nation, and it’s critical that our heart be in the right place – if you know what I mean!

Return to Uluru is a beautiful book in every way. It is gorgeously produced. Those of us in my reading group who read the physical version loved the paper and the extensive images. We felt sorry for the Kindle readers who missed this experience. But more importantly, Return to Uluru is sophisticated, conceptually, in the structured way McKenna elicits the symbolism from the facts to make very clear not only what happened but why it matters.

For an historian’s perspective, check out Janine’s review.

Mark McKenna
Return to Uluru
Carlton, Vic: Black Inc, 2019
256pp.
ISBN: 9781760642556

Stella Prize 2022 Winner announced

The 2022 Stella Prize winner was announced tonight and it’s not a surprise, as several of us in the blogosphere rather thought that

Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear

would be the winner. Indeed, I was so confident I took it with me to Melbourne this month, fully intending to read it. But, there was not much reading time, and it took most of my time there to finally finish 2020’s winner, Jess Hill’s See what you made me do (my review). I only read a couple of pages of Dropbear before I realised that I’d better read my reading group book for this week’s meeting. (It’s the next review you’ll see!) So, Dropbear is still languishing on the TBR, but you may remember from my shortlist announcement that Brona has reviewed it.

The book is a combination of prose and poetry, and the judges described it as:

a breathtaking collection of poetry and short prose which arrests key icons of mainstream Australian culture and turns them inside out, with malice aforethought. Araluen’s brilliance sizzles when she goes on the attack against the kitsch and the cuddly: against Australia’s fantasy of its own racial and environmental innocence.

The panel chair, Melissa Lucashenko, said that it will take you “on a wild ride” that is “simultaneously comical and dangerous”. All this confirms my desire to read it, because I enjoy writers who play with traditions, conventions and myths to encourage us to look again at who we are and what we do.

The quotes above, plus one by Stella’s Executive Director, Jaclyn Booton, can be found on the Stella website (linked below). There is also a quote from Evelyn Araluen’s acceptance. She commented that she’d been following the Stella for the length of her writing aspirations, and had hoped one day to write a novel that would win it. She never dreamed Dropbear would be that winner. She also said:

I’m deeply interested in the lives, histories, and dreams of women and gender diverse writers in Australian publishing, and it’s an honour to be recognised by a prize designed to champion those stories. There aren’t words to explain how thrilled I am to win.

Just to remind you, the judges were author Melissa Lucashenko, as chair, with her co-judges being writer, poet, essayist Declan Fry; author-across-all-forms Cate Kennedy; memoirist and activist Sisonke Msimang; and essayist and screenwriter Oliver Reeson

There’s more on the anouncement on the Stella website.

Any comments?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Pocket Library (1)

Bill and Lisa have already posted today in recognition of ANZAC Day, Bill’s titled ANZAC Day 2022, while Lisa’s is about Martha Gething who is featured in the book, Australian women pilots: Amazing true stories of women in the air. My post, in fact, comes to you courtesy of Lisa who, last week, emailed me with the subject line, “A Monday Musings Topic?” She wrote that while reading Nathan Hobby’s soon-to-be-published biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, she’d “learned about the existence of the Commonwealth Pocket Library, cheap paperbacks for distribution to POWs during the war”. She closed her email with, “Of course I thought of you…”.

Now, I’m always happy to hear ideas, particularly ones like this which come with a link to a scholarly article. I was especially grateful, this time, because I had been pondering a topic relevant to ANZAC Day, given Monday was going to be THE day. She handed me my post on a platter, so, thanks Lisa!

Australian Pocket Library

I should start, though, by saying that it appears it was called the Australian Pocket Library, not Commonwealth Pocket Library, as Hobby describes it. Wilde, Hooton and Andrews’ The Oxford companion to Australian literature says:

The Australian Pocket Library was a series of austerity paperbacks published with the help of the then Commonwealth Literary Fund during the economic restrictions imposed by the Second World War.

(The Fund’s involvement is probably where the “Commonwealth” confusion came in.)

There is, of course, far more to this story than The Oxford companion had time to tell, and I’m going to share some of it with you. In addition to reading the article from the Australian Literary Studies journal sent to me by Lisa, I also did a Trove search – of course! The project, it seems, generated quite a bit of excitement in bookish circles – and why not!

Neil James, in the article Lisa sent me, provides a history of the series. It started with an idea in 1943 and ended with publication of the last books in the series in 1947. Its active life, in other words, was short – but James argues that its legacy, both positive and negative, was significant. I’ll return to this in part 2, because there is so much to explore.

Origins

James explains that in 1943, Prime Minister Curtin had been approached by the AIF Women’s Auxiliary for Prisoners of War which wanted cheap editions of Australian books for Australia’s POWs. The Auxiliary had been choosing books for parcels going overseas, but were finding that “practically every Australian book we would wish to include is now out of print”. Prisoners of war everywhere, they said, ask for books about their homeland. The request was referred to the Advisory Board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund (CLF), and it ended up with Vance Palmer, who was on the Fund’s Advisory Board. He “immediately latched onto the idea”, not just for “the POWs, but also for the cause of Australian literature”. Never let a chance go by, eh! Vance and his wife Nettie Palmer, as many of you will know, were significant supporters and promoters of Australian literature, as well as being writers themselves. 

Anyhow, Palmer advised that the task was beyond private publishers: the paper would not be available, and, anyhow, “most publishers do not know what to print and how to get the copyrights”. It was, in other words, a job for the CLF. Indeed, writes James, the Fund had apparently had ideas since 1939 for “a standard library of Australian works”. Here was their chance.

Cutting to the chase, funding was granted and the process commenced. You won’t be surprised to hear that choosing the actual books was fraught. Various publishers wanted their books included, but Palmer was, says James, “sceptical of Australian publishers” because they’d proven themselves to be “cautious” regarding publishing Australian literature. A committee was formed to choose the books. The plan was that “the CLF would have editorial control but the publishers would pay for production and distribution”. Publishers “which had the rights to a book chosen would have first option to publish it in the Library” but they had to agree to “conditions governing cover design, format, royalties, and price”. James explains why publishers supported a scheme in which they took all the financial risk but gave “creative control to a Canberra committee”. The reason was, in a word, paper!

The list, primarily chosen by Vance Palmer and Flora Eldershaw, was not universally approved. James reports that CLF’s Board chair “was consulted only when the list was virtually set”. He was apparently a little put out, commenting that it “is possible that other considerations than merit have determined the choice”.

The books

And here, I’ll turn for a while to Trove, and what the critics, reviewers and journalists thought. One of those was R.G. Howarth. He was founding editor of the literary journal, Southerly, and literary critic for the Sydney Morning Herald. According to Lee, in the Australian Dictionary of Biography,  he “influence[d] Australian writing through deciding who would or would not be published in the 1940s and 1950s”. His sole criterion was “literary quality”, not “political and ideological considerations”.

Howarth wrote about the new initiative in 1944 (April 29), starting with the basic plan: it involves twenty-five “standard” Australian books, “designed for members of the Australian forces (including prisoners of war) and members of the Allied forces in Australia, as well as for the general public”, and to be sold at prices ranging from 1/3 to 2/. The list includes 10 novels, plus collections of short stories, “descriptive books”, histories, verse, a scientific work, and essays.

He comments that the poets, Lawson, Paterson, and Dennis, “will undoubtedly solace and stimulate the fighting-man” as well as “renew their own popularity”. He describes the novels, which included currently out-of-print books, Robbery under arms, We of the Never Never, and Man Shy; the best of Australian novels of the last war, Leonard Mann’s Flesh in armour, which is “unhappily little known because unobtainable”; and Katharine Prichard’s Haxby’s Circus, Brian Penton’s Landtakers, Vance Palmer’s Passage, Kylie Tennant’s Tiburon, Barnard Eldershaw’s The Glass House, and Miles Franklin’s Old Blastus of Bandicoot.

However …

Of course there was going to be a “however”! Howarth questions the definition of the selected works as “standard”, notwithstanding the CLF confronted issues concerning “copyright and competition”. He recognises that the Commonwealth Literary Fund is “at once serving the reading public, helping the Australian author, and reviving books undeservedly neglected”, then asks how far the list meets these purposes.

He questions, to take Prichard as an example, why Haxby’s Circus “and not her Pioneers or Working bullocks – much more Australian in spirit and setting?” Re Bernard Eldershaw, he asks, why “The glass house – a study of shipboard life during a voyage from Europe to Australia – rather than their prize winning A house is built?” Well, I don’t know, but Eldershaw was on the selection committee so …

Of Penton’s Landtakers and Franklin’s Old Blastus of Bandicoot he says that “much as one admires the authors in other ways one is compelled by honesty to say that their inclusion is at least questionable”. Old Blastus, he feels, ‘appears as a failure that might well have been a success; in it a true “character” is imperfectly realised’.

And of course, as all commentators do on lists, he identifies works not included, such as For the term of his natural life. He recognises that ‘opinions are now divided about this …but surely it presents a stage in our history and in the development of the human conscience that must be retained in mind. It is “standard”, too in the same sense as Robbery under arms‘. He names other gaps, such as novels by Eleanor Dark, Ernestine Hill, Norman Lindsay and Christina Stead.

But, he concludes:

Whatever one’s opinions of its selection, the Commonwealth Literary Fund must be congratulated on the vision and courage of the enterprise. It has here decisively shown its importance to Australian authors, hitherto largely unprotected and uncertain of the future; and its wish and power to foster the growth, and distribute the products of Australian literature.

Then, on 4 May 1944, he writes a letter to the editor passing on a playwright’s surprise at the omission of “the Australian playwright” from the list. Two days later, on 6 May, playwright Leslie Rees, who signs as “Hon. Chairman, Playwrights’ Advisory Board” responds in his own letter, saying that Howarth was “surely unfair in implying that the Commonwealth Literary Fund has done nothing for the Australian dramatist”. He defends the work of the Fund and says that “When the time comes for a second list of Pocket Library books”, plays “might well be included”. You gotta laugh really. Howarth merely passed on someone else’s comment – albeit in passing it on he must have agreed somewhat – while Rees defends the Fund suggesting that they “might” include plays in a later list! Sounds like some undercurrent there that we don’t know about.

Meanwhile, on 17 May, P.I.O’L. also took up the issue of “standard”, but I’ll leave that for next week … and simply say, here, that little of the discussion I read focused much on the poor POWs!

Sources

Jess Hill, See what you made me do (#BookReview)

Jess Hill See What You Made Me Do

I took me a long time to read Jess Hill’s 2020 Stella award-winning See what you make me do, partly because I bought the e-book version which I read in fits and starts and partly because of its content. As the Aussies among you will know, Hill’s book is an intense, thorough discussion of domestic abuse. It’s not an easy topic but it is a critical one because if statistics tell us anything it’s that the situation in Australia is not improving.

There’s no way I can share the wealth of information or fully convey the impressive depth of research Hill has done. However, I’ll do my best to give a sense of what this book does, and how Hill does it. She starts on definition, explaining that wherever possible, she replaced the term “domestic violence” with “domestic abuse” because “in some of the worse abusive relationships, physical violence is rare, minor or barely present”. “Domestic abuse” is the term now used by UK police because it undercuts the assumption that abuse is only serious if it’s physical.

Those of you versed in trauma will appreciate a fundamental challenge Hill faced, which, as she describes it, is that “power imbalance built into the journalist–source relationship: the journalist usually has ultimate power over what gets published”. For survivors of abuse, who have suffered at the hands of power, this could effectively mean abusing them all over again. So, Hill “wanted to flip that and give the power back to them. If this process was not a positive experience for them, there was no point in doing it”. So, she gave “them the chance, wherever possible, to review their story, suggest revisions or ask for things to be deleted – especially if there were safety concerns”.

In her Introduction she lays out the road map:

In the chapters that follow, we will travel through an extraordinary landscape, from the confounding psychology of perpetrators and victims to the Kafkaesque absurdity of the family law system.

And so, in eleven chapters, Hill traverses domestic abuse from multiple angles, grounding it in case studies – usually with names changed – which force us to put a face on the accompanying theories and statistics.

Hill starts by establishing coercive control as a fundamental aspect of domestic abuse. Our understanding of its techniques, she writes, come from the Cold War and US Air Force social scientist Albert Biderman’s recognition of how the tools of coercive control had been used on American POWs in North Korean camps. From here she analyses how the same techniques are used by intimate partners – almost always male, though there is a chapter on women who abuse – to create a threatening atmosphere that will convince the victim of the perpetrator’s omnipotence, the futility of resistance, and the necessity of compliance. The aim is total dominion (which is exactly what Wemyss’ wanted over Lucy in the prescient Vera). Hill describes the techniques in detail, and it’s chilling.

The best word for this book is forensic, because Hill burrows deep. She confronts us with our uncertainties – why did she stay, for example – and makes us see just how deep the degradation goes. She explains how a concussed women can look drunk and so be missed by the police as the victim. She shows how a traumatised woman can come across as irrational and erratic in court versus her cool, calm, well-presented abuser. She interrogates the role of patriarchy, and how it damages men, as well as women. Feminists, as many of us know, were the first to recognise this.

She looks at disabled women. She looks at children and the way they are used and treated by abusers in power plays. Indeed, her chapter on children and the courts is horrifying. She details the gradual weakening of the Gough-Whitlam-established family court system through successive, mostly conservative, governments. She shows how some of this weakening has been underpinned by a particularly egregious theory called Parent Alienation Syndrome. She reveals the perfect storm created for children caught up in a family court softened by law and bolstered by such spurious theory.

And, she devotes a chapter to First Nations women, who are at significantly greater risk of abuse than their non-Indigenous peers. The stories just keep on piling up as you read, stories that you can barely countenance, except that anyone with any semblance of awareness will know they are true.

It’s tough going but it’s valuable reading, because for all I thought I knew, there were details I didn’t know or appreciate. Hill asks some pertinent questions, like:

In the years I’ve spent writing this book, I’ve found that it’s the questions we don’t ask that are the most confounding: Why does he stay? Why do these men, who seem to have so much hatred for their partners, not only stay, but do everything they can to stop their partner from leaving? Why do they even do it in the first place? It’s not enough to say that perpetrators abuse because they want power and control. Why do they want that?

Or, as “Survivor Queensland” put it, ‘I want people to stop asking “Why does she stay?” and start asking “Why does he do that?”‘

Some of the answers lie in “traditional notions of masculinity – particularly male entitlement” which are at “the core of men’s violence against women”. But Hill identifies more questions, such as “what are the different reasons men have for needing to dominate their partners?” and what is going on in their minds that makes them “sabotage the lives of their partners and children – to the point where they destroy even their own lives?” These are “critical parts of the puzzle” that are “missing from our public conversations about domestic abuse”. 

Hill titles her final chapter “Fixing it”. She notes Australia’s excellent record in tackling public health problems. “From thwarting the tobacco industry to criminalising drink-driving, Australian governments have shown they are willing to burn political capital to save lives”, she says, and have achieved results. She then shares some of the actions currently being taken – but, of course, this was just before the pandemic so I suspect some of them have fallen by the roadside.

In 2017, she writes, a KPMG report concluded that although “significant progress” had been made against the “National Outcomes”, not only was there no evidence of reduction in “domestic violence”, in fact, the evidence suggested that “the incidence and severity of domestic and family violence” was increasing. However, lest we close the book feeling completely hopeless, Hill concludes with examples of two recent programs that have worked. We just need government will and support to back more such targeted programs. It can be done.

Janine (Resident Judge) also reviewed it.

Jess Hill
See what you made me do: Power, control and domestic abuse
Carlton, Vic.: Black Inc, 2019
416pp.
ISBN: 9781743820865 (eBook)

Bernard Cronin, The last train (#Review, #1954Club )

Bernard Cronin (1884-1968) has featured in this blog a couple of times, but most significantly in a Monday Musings which specifically featured him. He was a British-born Australian writer who, in his heyday in the 1920s to 40s, was among Australia’s top 10 most popular novelists. And yet, along with many others of his ilk, he has slipped from view. However, I did find a short story of his published in 1954 so decided this was my opportunity to check him out.

The reason I wrote my Monday Musings on Cronin was because in 1920 he founded (with Gertrude Hart) the Old Derelicts’ Club, which later became the Society of Australian Authors, but I have mentioned him in other posts too. For example, in one post, I noted that in 1927, Tasmania’s Advocate newspaper had named Cronin as being “amongst the leaders of Australian fiction”. And, in my post on Capel Boake I shared that he had written collaboratively with Doris Boake Kerr (aka Capel Boake) under the pseudonym of Stephen Grey. In fact, he used a few pseudonyms, another being Eric North, which he used for his science fiction. Cronin wrote across multiple forms (publishing over twenty novels as well as short stories, plays, poems and children’s stories) and genres (including historical fiction, adventure stories, metropolitan crime fiction, romances, and science fiction and fantasy).

Wikipedia’s article on him includes a “partial” list of his works, with the earliest being The flame from 1916, and the latest novel being Nobody stops me from 1960. What the list tells us is that his most active period occurred between 1920 and 1950, so the story from 1954 that I read comes late in his career.

I had initially chosen a different story, “Carmody’s lark”, which was published in late 1954 in several newspapers, but belatedly discovered that one paper had printed it in 1951! Wah! Fortunately, I found another, “The last train”, that, as far as I can tell, was first published in newspapers in 1954. They are very different stories, the former being a character piece about a lonely suburban railway worker whose friends notice a change in behaviour and think he’s finally found a woman, while the latter is a more traditional suspense story set, coincidentally, on a surburban train. Both convey subtle wordplays in the their titles.

“The last train” picks up that conversation-with-a-stranger-on-a-train motif, a conversation that will change the life of the protagonist. It’s midnight, and a “nondescript little man in sports coat and baggy slacks” rushes onto the train at Ringwood in the outer suburbs of Melbourne heading for the Dandenongs. There’s a broken light in the carriage so it’s (appropriately) dim. He thinks he’s alone until he notices “a man in a rather comical misfit of hat and light raincoat”. He’s “slumped forward with his elbows on his knees, staring at him”.

Now, our “little man” has had a rather dramatic night. The story continues …

there was nothing in the least sinister in the indolent down-at-heel looks of his solitary companion. He seemed, indeed, exactly the type preyed on by the garrulous; and the newcomer, who was shuddering deliciously with a sense of rare importance, instinctively shifted over to the corner immediately opposite him.

You have probably worked out already that all is not as our “little man”, as he is repeatedly described, thinks. The story builds slowly, starting with a bit of general chat that, if you are looking for it, already contains little hints of menace. But, our “little man” blunders on, ostensibly uncertain at first but in fact keen to tell of his experience that night, while the “other man” listens, gently encouraging him on. Too late does our “little man” realise the truth of the matter, but the story ends there, leaving it to the reader to imagine the rest from the clues given.

Lest you be thinking, it is not the same story as Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel, Strangers on a train (adapted by Hitchcock into a film of the same name). And it is not like Christie’s earlier 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express. However, it is a well-told, if traditional, suspense story, that is typical, I’d say, of 1950s popular crime fiction and perfect for a newspaper readership. (Whatever happened to the inclusion of short stories in newspapers?)

And that, I think, is the best I can do for Karen and Simon’s #1954Club.

Bernard Cronin
“The last train”
in Maryborough Chronicle (Maryborough, Qld)
22 November 1954
Available online

Monday musings on Australian literature: 1954 in fiction

Some of you know that Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling) and Simon (Stuck in a Book) run “reading weeks” in which they choose, somewhat randomly, a year from which “everyone reads, enjoys, posts and shares wonderful books and discoveries from the year in question”. The next one is 1954, and is happening this week, 18-24 April.

I’ve taken part a couple of times, the first time being the 1936 Club for which I also wrote a Monday Musings. I’ve decided to do this again for 1954.

By 1954, World War 2 was over, and the now infamous baby-boom was well underway. Australia was welcoming migrants from war-torn Europe and life was, generally, looking good. However, the war was still close, and the Cold War was being well felt. The war featured heavily in popular literature, but writers were also looking at who we were as Australians, and at our near neighbours.

My research located a variety of books published that year across all forms, but to keep this simple, I am going to focus on fiction. Here is a selection:

  • Jon Cleary, The climate of courage
  • Dale Collins, Storm over Samoa
  • L.H. Evers, Pattern of conquest
  • Miles Franklin (as “Brent of Bin Bin”), Cockatoos (Bill’s review)
  • Catherine Gaskin, Sara Dane
  • Nourma Handford, Coward’s kiss
  • T.A.G. Hungerford, Sowers of the wind: A novel of the occupation of Japan
  • Barbara Jefferis, Contango Day
  • Eric Lambert, The veterans and The five bright stars
  • Henry George Lamond, The manx star
  • Eve Langley, White topee (Bill on The pea pickers and White topee)
  • Kenneth Mackenzie (as “Seaforth” Mackenzie), The refuge
  • Alan Moorehead, A summer night
  • Tom Ronan, Vision splendid
  • Arthur Upfield, Death of a lake
  • Judah Waten, The unbending
  • Don Whitington, Treasure upon the earth

Many of these authors have been forgotten, while others, like Alan Moorehead, are more remembered for their non-fiction work. Some, like Jon Cleary and Arthur Upfield, were successful writers of popular fiction, and are still remembered, albeit probably little read. Women are less evident here, than they were in 1936.

However, this list also includes some significant “literary” writers, like Miles Franklin, Eve Langley and Judah Waten, and others who are remembered today for awards established in their names, T.A.G. Hungerford and Barbara Jefferis. I like the sound of Jefferis’ debut novel. It was set during a single day in Sydney about Miss Doxy, a confidential filing and records clerk. The Barbara Jefferis Award was endowed by her husband in 2007 to commemorate her. 

There were very few literary awards at the time. One that did exist, the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, was awarded in 1954 to poet Mary Gilmore for her collection Fourteen men.

Writers born this year included two poets, Kevin Hart and Dorothy Porter, and the novelist Kerry Greenwood. Deaths included, significantly, Miles Franklin.

Overland magazine, to which I often refer, was established in 1954 by Stephen Murray-Smith and Eric Lambert, who had also co-founded, with Frank Hardy, Melbourne’s Realist Writers’ Association.

The state of the art

Of course, I checked Trove to see what newspapers of the time were saying about Australian literature, and the fiction in particular.

Some specific issues

A recurring issue was the cost of books in Australia. A brief article in Adelaide’s Advertiser (January 25) reports on a visit to Australia by Desmond Flower of the large British publisher Cassell & Co. Flower said that English publishing costs had dropped slightly because of reductions in the price of cloth and paper, and the cost of printing was also likely to fall which should bring book prices down in England, “and consequently Australia”. (As an aside, he also noted that book business in Australia had trebled since 1939, which represented a greater increase than anywhere else in the Empire.)

Another discussion concerned the Little Golden Books, and Americanisation of Australian culture. (Nothing new, eh?) Jill Hellyer writing in the Tribune (July 21) argues not only that these cheap books had “pushed Australian authors even further from their precarious position”, when there are excellent Australian books available, but that the books were “full of loose phrases, bad grammar and cheap American slang”. She admits some in the series are good, but is particularly scathing about the Disney versions of classic children’s stories. There was a riposte, in the Tribune (August 11) from a “West Australian mother” who argued that “it is possible to select, from among these books, ones that can be good and useful for our children”. She didn’t mind ‘reading the words “sidewalk” or “cookies” because it provided her the “opportunity to explain this is how people talk in America”. From her point of view, these understandings help us get to know other people and cultures. However, while she disagreed with Hellyer’s specific cultural concerns, she agreed that “some [Golden Books] are very unpleasing, notably the ones based on Walt Disney’s films that were mentioned by the author of the article”.

Censorship was also discussed. The highly-respected Australian librarian John Metcalfe was quoted in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph (August 10) as arguing against proposals (from both the right and the left) to extend censorship. The particular target was comic strips and books believed undesirable for children. Censorship, he said, is against the “liberal tradition” and was a “negative approach to the problem”. The Children’s Book Council, he said, “shows that a positive approach can be made in encouraging children to tackle a better type of literature.”

Similarly, a commentator in Wagga Waga’s Daily Advertiser (September 2) expressed concern about plans to extend censorship. Accepting that there there was a “a plethora of cheap and sexy trash on the market” and “an emphasis in some publications on crime and violence”, and agreeing that these can present “a danger to the younger generation and the lesser intellects [defined how?] among the adults”, this commentator believed that “a ban on ‘obscene’ literature is too dangerous to be countenanced”, and goes on to argue the case. There must be other ways, our commentator says, because

Once books are banned or burned, freedom is on the way out.

Some specific books

I could write screeds on reviews of particular books – even though I only read a tiny percentage of the articles I retrieved in Trove – but that’s not practicable, so, I’ll just share a few.

Brent of Bin Bin’s Cockatoos was much approved – and was also recognised by then as the work of Miles Franklin. IM (Ian Mair?) summarising the year’s books in Melbourne’s The Age (December 11) wrote “In the year’s fiction, first must come The Cockatoos … Like all her novels of country life, it has a wonderful feeling for place and period”. Earlier in the year, the writer of the Books Received column in Townsville’s Bulletin (April 18), wrote:

The theme is the universal one of the conflict between the artist and the practical majority who do not take the arts seriously, but the novel is also another Brent of Bin Bin’s memorable recreations of place and period in Australian country life. It is concerned particularly with the problem if the “exodists” — the restless young Australians who fifty years ago sought art of adventure, and in so doing suffered uprooting and exile. 

Oh dear – “the practical majority who do not take the arts seriously”!

There’s superlative praise for popular writers of the time like Jon Cleary and EV Timms. T.A.G. Hungerford‘s Sowers of the wind was also much liked. Interestingly, Wikipedia says that this novel won the 1949 Sydney Morning Herald prize for literature but was held back by publisher Angus & Robertson until 1954 “because it dealt with the economic and sexual exploitation of the Japanese after the War by Australian occupation forces”.

But I’ll save my last discussion for Eve Langley’s White topee. There were many reviews for this book, which continues the story of Steve from The pea pickers, but most seemed to be variations on a theme, which is to say, they praised its creativity but expressed some uncertainty too. Langley remains a challenging author for many, but her contemporary reviewers did value what she offered.

The Newcastle Sun’s (August 5) reviewer perhaps puts it best, opening with

It is impossible to judge White Topee by Eve Langley according to the established standards as the author has embarked upon the adventure of writing in a way that is completely original and individual.

The review uses headings like “poetic passages”, “heady style”, and “impressionistic”, but also gets Langley:

There are so many strands in this study of the country that the author’s impressions come tumbling with enough dazzling rapidity to suggest eccentricity, but the work on closer examination is revealed to be composite and, the result of shrewd observation and searching frankness.

M.P. in Queensland Country Life (August 5) is more measured, writing that it “could have been an outstanding book” but “is full of ego”. M.P. admires much in Langley’s passion and the writing:

Her love of Australia is deep and emotionally strong, and on the too rare occasions when Eve Langley forgets the poets and calls on her own descriptive powers she gives passages that, with their beauty and strength, are pure classics.

M.P. concludes that when Langley “extricates herself from the morass of sentimentality and confusion of mind she will write a book that is truly great”.

R.J.S., reviewing in Cairns Post (August 14) admired the book. S/he starts by saying “it has brilliant descriptive passages and much originality of thought but lacks a plot and is not a novel when judged by the usual standards”. S/he make a strong case for the work’s value:

To date no one has interpreted Australia and its people as Miss Langley has done in “White Topee.”

R.J.S. advises that the novel “cannot be skipped through” and suggests that “the careful reading it deserves will disclose that the writer has opened a new furrow in the field of Australian literature”.

I’ll leave White topee there, and will conclude my introduction to 1954 in Australian fiction with popular non-fiction author, Colin Simpson, who is quoted in Grafton’s Daily Examiner (December 23) as saying:

If one person in three would make one of his or her Christmas gifts a book by an Australian author, that could sufficiently enlarge the market to make authorship economic for more than just a few of us. The effect on our national literature could be very considerable.

Plus ça change?

Additional sources:

Meanwhile, do you plan to take part in the 1954 Club?

Margaret Atwood, Dearly (#BookReview)

Earlier this year, I decided to try audiobooks more regularly – and thought short stories would be a good way to go. Julie Koh’s Portable curiosities was my choice. It was, overall, a positive experience. Then I thought poetry might be worth trying given it’s such an aural form. I chose Margaret Atwood’s latest collection Dearly for my first foray into audio poetry since, although I’ve been an Atwood fan, I’ve only reviewed her once on my blog. Also, Atwood was a poet before she was a novelist. An added benefit was that the audio version was read by her. 

It worked really well – as a reading experience. For blogging, it was tricky. I found it difficult to capture the details I like to have for a review, much harder than remembering the plot, characters and themes of a novel experienced in audio form. Short stories fall somewhere in the middle. Anyhow, all this is to say that this post will share my overall thoughts, and a little about a few poems that I managed to jot down notes about or find online.

Overall, the collection came across as melancholic in tone, which is not to say the poems are uniformly grim, as there’s also plenty of Atwood’s cheeky humour. The worldview tends to the dystopian, reflecting Atwood’s concerns, but it felt realistic rather than hopeless. The subject matter is both political, dealing with issues like climate change and war, and personal, exploring ageing, grief and mortality. All of these speak to me.

Many of the poems draw on nature for their imagery, if not their subject matter. There’s a sense that nature is bearing the brunt of our wilfulness, that it shows evidence of our wilfulness, and, conversely, that it may also provide the answer. But, there are other poems which explore her themes through worlds I know nothing about, like zombies, aliens and werewolves.

And, of course, there’s Atwood’s love of language. The poems are accessible rather than obscure, but they’re not simple, because Atwood understands the weight of words and loves to play with them. This comes across really well in the audio version.

The collection is broken into five parts, starting, perhaps counter-intuitively, with “Late poems”. Many of the ideas here appealed to me, such as the idea in “Salt” that we don’t recognise the past was good until later. But, the poem that most touched me in this part was “Blizzard” in which Atwood talks about her nearly centenarian mother, asking “why can’t I let her go”? I could tell her why.

I enjoyed poems in Part 2, like “Health class (1953)” and “A genre painting”, but in Part 3, we find many poems inspired by nature. “September mushrooms” talks of fungi bringing “cryptic news of what goes on down there”. Halloween is the ostensible subject of “Carving the jacks”, which concludes with such a great line, “After we’re gone, the work of our knives survive us”. Atwood can do last lines.

In “Update on werewolves” (read it online), Atwood riffs on the masculine threat inherent in werewolves, then expands it to explore the empowerment of women. “Zombie” is prefaced by a lovely epigraph by Rilke, that “poetry is the past that breaks out in our hearts”. In “The aliens arrive”, Atwood runs through various movie aliens and their actions:

We like the part where we get saved.
We like the part where we get destroyed.
Why do those feel so similar? 

I love these pointed, paradoxical lines.

“At the translation conference” toys with language and culture, and how different cultures have words (or don’t) for different things. Some languages have “no word for him her … have no future tense”. There’s a wry reference to women and the word “no”, and, more scarily, to translation as a dangerous activity where punishment can result if the translation is “wrong”.

Part 4 also contains many nature-inspired poems. It continues the concerns and questions about where we are going, particularly regarding the environment. Finding a “Feather” causes Atwood to think of the “calligraphy of wrecked wings” and of the feather’s owner being “a high flyer once as we all were”. (This is one of many references to birds, which are a particular passion of Atwood’s.) “Improvisation on a first line by Yeats” continues the exploration of our rapacious attitude to land, as does “Plasticine Suite” with its word play on ages – the Pleistocene, the Myocene, now the Plasticine, “evidence of our cleverness, our thoughtlessness”. It addresses the arrogance of proselytising developed nations disregarding the needs of the less rich. “Oh children” ends with “Oh children … will you grow up in a world without ice … will you grow up?”

The collection concludes on the personal, with Part 5 devoted to ageing and loss, largely inspired by the death of Atwood’s husband in 2019 from dementia. There are some really lovely meditations here. In “Sad utensils” she writes of “the word reft/ who says that anymore?” despite its being honed over years and used by many. As words pass, so do our own lives, and the people we love. In “Silver slippers” she reflects on ageing and the things we give up along the way, “no dancing anymore … all my wishes used up … where did you go and when/ it wasn’t to Kansas”.

The second last poem is the titular poem, and it speaks directly to her loss of her husband, starting with the loss of the word “dearly”:

It’s an old word, fading now:
Dearly did I wish.
Dearly did I long for:
I loved him dearly.

Moving, and to the point – as is the final line of the book, from the poem “Blackberries”: “the best ones grow in shadow”. More paradox. I will leave my thoughts there and pass you over to Margaret Atwood herself in her essay for The Guardian on this collection. She says it all far more eloquently than I ever could.

Margaret Atwood
Dearly
(Read by Margaret Atwood)
Bolinda Audio, 2020 (Orig. pub. 2020)
1hr 48mins (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781867504009

Monday musings on Australian literature: Bibliomemoirs

Book cover

At the end of my post on Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here, I mentioned that Brona (This reading life) had described it as a bibliomemoir, which was a new term for me. As it turns out it is a reasonably new term, full stop. Readings Bookshop says that

defined by Joyce Carol Oates in the New York Times in 2014 as ‘a subspecies of literature combining criticism and biography with the intimate tone of an autobiography’, the bibliomemoir offers unique and personal insights into people’s relationships to their books.

This is not to say that the “genre” is new – because it certainly isn’t – but that it now has its own name.

Website/blog Book Riot also wrote about them recently, saying

Most readers love books about books. We also love snooping through other people’s bookshelves for the thrill of the possibility of discovering a whole person in a stack of books that they chose to read. Bibliomemoirs offer both. These books combine the confessional, intimate tone and personal approach of memoirs and autobiography with, well, books, and sometimes literary criticism.

And, apparently, says Kate Flaherty in The Conversation, Gabrielle Carey has, herself, described the genre:

Carey described bibliomemoir as a piece of writing that shows literary criticism is “best written as a personal tale of the encounter between a reader and a writer”.

It’s not surprising, then, that Only happiness here is a good example. In it Gabrielle Carey looks at Elizabeth von Arnim’s life through the prism of her works and draws conclusions about her own life through those same works. In doing so, she also offers literary criticism, through both her own views and those of others on von Arnim’s books.

The first example of this genre that I can remember reading – before it had its name – is non Australian, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A memoir in books (2003)*. Such an intelligent, moving – and political – book.

For keen readers, the bibliomemoir, when done well, and particularly when written by and/or about favourite writers, can be engaging (if sometimes disheartening!) reading. They can also be enlightening because they explore the way we use books to understand our own lives and/or to understand the lives of others. They are about the way we use books, for example, for solace, for self-education, for the safe exploration of other ideas and feelings.

Readings, in the page linked above, shares a few bibliomemoirs selected by their Hawthorn store bookseller, Mike Shuttleworth. Not all were Australian, but as most of you know by now, these Monday posts are devoted to Australian literature, so my list here includes his two Aussie selections and others selected by me:

  • Debra Adelaide, The innocent reader: Reflections on reading and writing (2019) (on my TBR, Lisa’s review)
  • Carmel Bird, Telltale: Reading, writing, remembering (to be published July 2022)
  • Ramona Koval, By the book: A reader’s guide to life (2012) (Lisa’s review)
  • Michael McGirr, Books that saved my life: Reading for wisdom, solace and pleasure (2018) (Brona’s review)
  • Judith Ridge (ed.), The book that made me: A collection of 32 personal stories (2016)
  • Jane Sullivan, Storytime: Growing up with books (2019) (Lisa’s review)
  • Brenda Walker, Reading by moonlight: How books saved a life (2010)

Book Riot says, “A bibliomemoir is like an insightful, bookish dinner guest — and a recipe for an exploding TBR”. On the other hand, bibliomemoirist herself, Jane Sullivan, shared a different viewpoint in The Sydney Morning Herald back in 2014. She wrote that British journalist Rachel Cooke, while liking what bibliomemoirs were doing, was also worried. Cooke, wrote, she says:

These books, however endearing, funny and insightful, strike me as just another form of talking about books rather than actually reading them. Go to the text! I want to shout, bossily.

So, with all this in mind, do you like bibliomemoirs? And, if so, care to share any favourites, Aussie or otherwise?

* Coincidentally, while researching this I discover that Nafisi has a new book out this year, Read dangerously: The subversive power of literature in troubled times.

POSTSCRIPT : An interesting, brief discussion of bibliomemoir at Boston Bookfest. Argues that:

Much like microhistory, bibliomemoir upends a specific, traditional cultural structure—in this case the kind of authoritative perspective (rooted in entrenched power structures) that conventional criticism upholds. In this sense, it is an inherently political genre—a liberal or democratic genre.

A little note on dark literature

Book cover

I ended my post on Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim with Carey’s point that, although at her death there was a belief that von Arnim’s work would live on, “her style of conventionally plotted novels, however rebellious, insightful or entertaining, soon went out of literary fashion”. This was because, claimed English novelist Frank Swinnerton, “her talent lay in fun, satirical portraiture, and farcical comedy” and these, he said, were ‘scorned by the “modern dilemma”‘. He was referring to Modernism, which, as Carey says, “didn’t believe in happiness” – and this, she added, is a value that has carried through to today.

Modernist writer, Albert Camus, for example, wrote

Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (1 January 1942)

Anyhow, Carey writes just a little more about this issue of our focus on gloom. She quotes literary theorist Terry Eagleton from his 2015 book Hope without optimism. Eagleton comments that it can be “arresting” when contemporary novels “fail to be suitably downbeat”. He said that for a contemporary novel to end on a “joyfully transformative note” – as Jose Saramago’s Blindness does – “is almost as audacious as if Pride and Prejudice were to conclude with a massacre of the Bennet sisters”. Love his example of course.

Eagleton goes on to say that

In this era of modernity, gloom appears a more sophisticated stance than cheerfulness.

Carey picks up this idea, suggesting that this attitude is the key to von Arnim’s demise. She says:

It has become more respectable to be depressed, an attitude that signals virtue, and almost socially irresponsible to be happy – a state that is associated with vacuousness. After all, if you aren’t depressed by the mess the world is in – ravaged by fire, flood and plague – you are clearly insensitive or uninformed. Perhaps that is precisely why no one reads her novels anymore, because amid our infatuation with darkness, being cheerful has become not only unsophisticated but morally suspect.

This made me stop and think … because, while most times have been difficult in one way or another, it does seem to be particularly so now. The pandemic, climate change, the current war in Ukraine, not to mention, in Australia, our government’s refusal to meet our First Nation’s people half-way, their inflexible hard-hearted policy regarding refugees and asylum-seekers, and the continuing violence against women, are all a bit overwhelming. No wonder we feel gloomy.

But, here’s the thing. My personal life here and now is going OK. Of course I’m concerned about all the things I’ve just mentioned – I’d be “insensitive” and “uninformed” if I weren’t – but in my daily life they are (with perhaps the exception of the pandemic) “just” concerns. What I mean by this is that I have the luxury of choosing whether to worry about them or not, rather than that they are issues that spoil my generally comfortable life. It should therefore, theoretically speaking, be easy for me to be cheerful. This is something that, coincidentally, I’ve been pondering rather a lot lately, so Carey’s comment hit a nerve. I DO feel it would be “morally suspect” of me to be cheerful.

This is because – to use the word du jour, if it’s not already passé – we are now “woke”. We are acutely aware of our privilege in a way that past generations may not have been, and this is not only uncomfortable, but we feel uncomfortable about being uncomfortable because, well, we are not really uncomfortable. It’s too easy, in the situation, to become smug in our “wokeness” …

So, where does that leave us? Cheerfulness in itself is not a bad thing. We achieve nothing by being gloomy all the time, but can we truly be happy being cheerful? I’m not sure I can. The best, I think, I can aim for, is to have a laugh every now and then – and what better way than through the arts – before I get back to the difficult job of living in this challenging, uncertain world.

What do you think?

(Meanwhile, for a different take on happiness in modern literature, check out this 2013 article from The Guardian.)

Elizabeth von Arnim, Vera (#BookReview)

After a run of tough reads in 2021, my reading group wanted something gentler, so I suggested that for our “classic” we do a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, whose works I’ve loved for their pointed wit, delightful humour, and astute commentary on marriage and the relationship between men and women. As is my wont, I nominated one from my TBR shelves, Vera. To my delight, they agreed.

Then, before reading it, I decided to remind myself of von Arnim’s life, so I read Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim (my review). Imagine my horror when, two-thirds through, Carey wrote that Vera was her “darkest” novel, “a haunting portrait of psychological tyranny”. What? Too late by then, but I did hope my reading group would, one, forgive me, and, two, not be turned off von Arnim. As it turned out, all those who attended the meeting liked the book and pronounced it “not too dark”. Was I pleased!

Nonetheless, Vera is a dark novel, one that reminded me of a book written four decades later by Elizabeth Harrower, The watch tower (my review). Both novels are about narcissism and coercive control, about older men who marry and tyrannise vulnerable and inexperienced much younger women.

Wuthering Heights by Jane Austen”

When Vera was published, readers and reviewers were, says Carey, confused. How did “playful, witty Elizabeth von Arnim, author of light social comedies” become “a gothic writer of macabre tragedy”? Von Arnim was distressed but cousin Katherine Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murry, is reported to have said to her, on the appearance of a negative review in The Times Literary Supplement, “Of course my dear, when the critics are faced with Wuthering Heights by Jane Austen, they don’t know what to say.”

This is an apposite comment for a few reasons – besides its intention to reassure. Firstly, von Arnim pointedly has Lucy, our young wife, read Wuthering Heights even though husband Everard calls it “morbid”. It’s an effective allusion, given the darkness of Brontë’s novel and its focus on obsessive love. However, Murry’s comment also conveys something about the experience of reading this novel, because, while it is dark and distressing, it still bears von Arnim’s Austen-like light touch, and that, I think, is what my reading group appreciated.

By now, if you haven’t read it yourself, you may be wondering why this novel is called Vera when the two protagonists I’ve named are Lucy and Everard? So, let me do a quick plot summary.

The novel begins with 22-year-old Lucy Entwhistle leaning on the front gate of the house in Cornwall that she and her father had taken for the late summer. Her father has just died suddenly and Lucy is in shock. Into view comes another – apparently – grieving person, the mid-forties Everard Wemyss, whose wife Vera had died a week or so ago. Things, though, are not quite as they seem. A shadow hangs over Vera’s death, with a suggestion that it may not have been accidental but a suicide. Lucy, unfortunately, is naive and vulnerable, and despite the best efforts of her wise Aunt Dot, she is swept into marriage, with socially unacceptable haste. After the honeymoon, Everard takes her to his county mansion, “The Willows”, where Vera had died. He makes no attempt to change anything – expecting Lucy to sleep in the same bed Vera did, to occupy Vera’s sitting room, to have breakfast overlooking the flagstones onto which Vera had fallen (or jumped). Kind, head-over-heels-in-love Lucy does her best to justify Everard’s increasingly controlling behaviour but it dawns all too quickly that he expects nothing less than utter servitude . 

And so, Lucy, whose usual state had been one “of affection and confidence”, learns that the “scenes” that she hated could not be avoided “for no care, no caution would for ever be able to watch what she said, or did, or look, or equally important, what she didn’t say, or didn’t do, or didn’t look”. It leaves her “afraid with the most dismal foreboding, that someday after one of them, or in the middle of one of them, her nerve would give out and she would collapse. Collapse deplorably; into just something that howled and whimpered.”

Lucy starts to think kindly of this Vera she’d never met.

“It’s wonderful, wonderful … what love will do” (The doctor)

It’s grim, certainly, but this is Elizabeth von Arnim, so there’s humour – black comedy – here too. There are some truly funny scenes, particularly involving the poor servants for whom Everard has not one ounce of humanity. These servants only stay at “The Willows” because he is in town all week. They can manage his cruelly imperious ways from Friday night to Monday morning, because the wages were higher than any they’d heard of. (They probably had to be!)

So, here is a scene in which Everard confronts the parlourmaid about a missing button on a piano leg cover:

“What do you see?” he asked.
The parlourmaid was reluctant to say. What she saw was piano legs, but she felt that wasn’t the right answer.
“What do you not see?” Wemyss asked, louder.
This was much more difficult, because there were so many things she didn’t see; her parents, for example.
“Are you deaf, woman?” he enquired.
She knew the answer to that, and said it quickly.
“No sir,” she said.

And so it continues, but you get the gist. The scene is indicative of Wemyss’ extreme bullying behaviour, but you can’t help laughing while feeling for the poor parlourmaid.

This black humour is one of the things that kept me reading. Another was von Arnim’s writing. She has wonderful turns of phrase, such as this of Lucy reining in some disturbing thoughts: “Lucy made a violent lunge after her thoughts, and strangled them”.

Von Arnim is also an excellent satirist and ironist. Just look at the doctor’s statement above. He’s surprised and unsure about the marriage to Lucy but, well, look what love can do! Already, however, we are aware that his initial uncertainty is more than valid. One of the points Carey makes in her book is von Arnim’s disappointment in love and marriage. In her experience – including the marriage to Francis Russell which inspired this novel – men change as soon as they are married or, as the heady days of love wane. Vera is at the extreme, but not unbelievable, end of this disappointment.

Finally, there’s Jane Austen. Elizabeth von Arnim – and I’m not the first to say this – owes much to Austen. From my first Von Arnim, Austen’s wit and astute observation of human nature shone through. She nails the way humans think and behave with, sometimes, excruciating accuracy. But von Arnim’s style in Vera is not Austen’s. We don’t have Austen’s omniscient third person voice. Vera is told third person, but von Arnim uses that technique more common to modernists, the interior monologue, with the narrative perspective shifting between the main characters – Lucy, Everard and Lucy’s wonderful Aunt Dot. In fact, a few of the last chapters are with Aunt Dot as she comes head-to-head with Everard and learns just how right she had been to be concerned – but, well, look “what love will do”.

There’s more to discuss in this book. There’s Wemyss’ deeply creepy infantalisation of his 22-year-old wife, calling her “a good little girl” and “my very own baby”. There’s also his insistence that everything can be simplified to one right answer. Initially, the overwhelmed, grieving Lucy finds this comforting but, having grown up in an atmosphere of intellectual enquiry, she starts to not only think that such an attitude might “cut one off from growth” and “shut one in an isolation”, but to doubt “whether it was true that there was only one way looking at a thing” or “that his way was invariably the right way”.

Too soon after her death, Elizabeth von Arnim was relegated to the realms of light romantic comedy, but that denies their value, even when you look at her lighter works. However, when you add Vera to her oeuvre, you have a writer whose work must be seen as relevant now as it ever was.

Elizabeth von Arnim
Vera
London: Virago, 1983 (orig. pub. 1921)
319pp.
ISBN: 9781844082810