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Rudyard Kipling, The Janeites (#Commentary)

March 17, 2019

The topic for my local Jane Austen group’s March meeting was “Jane Austen in the trenches” which, I realise, sounds a bit anachronistic, given she died in 1817, nearly a century before the trenches we’re talking about. But, you see, Jane’s fame didn’t start in 1995 with Colin Firth and that wet shirt. No, her popularity took off around the late 19th century and has continued ever since, albeit with a huge spurt in the late 20th century. As Claire Harman states in Jane’s fame, she is the only writer “who is instantly recognisable by her first name”.

Rudyard Kipling

Kipling (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Anyhow, into the trenches. Our discussion was inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Janeites”, first published in 1924. It’s a little tricky to read, being peppered with Cockney voices, but it’s worth the effort – and not just for Janeites. It is set in a London Masonic Lodge in 1920, during a weekly clean-up of the premises. There are three main characters – Brother Anthony, a veteran of army service in the Holy Land during World War I, now a taxi driver; Brother Humberstall, a hairdresser who is a veteran of artillery service in France and who suffers somewhat from shell-shock (now, PTSD); and the first-person narrator, ostensibly Kipling. Humberstall tells the others of his induction, during the war, into a secret society, the Janeites. He explains how he came to join this society, which included members from all ranks, and the tests he had to pass to do so. He tells how this society kept them sane during the war, and how it, in fact, saved him, when, after a terrible attack, he was his group’s only survivor:

… I walked a bit, an’ there was a hospital-train fillin’ up, an’ one of the Sisters—a grey-headed one—ran at me wavin’ ’er red ’ands an’ sayin’ there wasn’t room for a louse in it. I was past carin’. But she went on talkin’ and talkin’ about the war, an’ her pa in Ladbroke Grove, an’ ’ow strange for ’er at ’er time of life to be doin’ this work with a lot o’ men, an’ next war, ’ow the nurses ’ud ’ave to wear khaki breeches on account o’ the mud, like the Land Girls; an’ that reminded ’er, she’d boil me an egg if she could lay ’ands on one, for she’d run a chicken-farm once. You never ’eard anythin’ like it—outside o’ Jane. It set me off laughin’ again. Then a woman with a nose an’ teeth on ’er, marched up. “What’s all this?” she says. “What do you want?” “Nothing,” I says, “only make Miss Bates, there, stop talkin’ or I’ll die.” “Miss Bates?” she says. “What in ’Eaven’s name makes you call ’er that?” “Because she is,” I says. “D’you know what you’re sayin’?” she says, an’ slings her bony arm round me to get me off the ground. “’Course I do,” I says, “an’ if you knew Jane you’d know too.” “That’s enough,” says she. “You’re comin’ on this train if I have to kill a Brigadier for you,” an’ she an’ an ord’ly fair hove me into the train, on to a stretcher close to the cookers. That beef-tea went down well! Then she shook ’ands with me an’ said I’d hit off Sister Molyneux in one, an’ then she pinched me an extra blanket. It was ’er own ’ospital pretty much. I expect she was the Lady Catherine de Bourgh of the area.

Of course, you have to know your Jane Austen to get the Miss Bates reference … !

Jane Austen by sister Cassandra

Throughout the story Austen is only ever described as Jane, which bears out Harman’s comment above. There’s an entertaining description of Austen’s subject matter –

’Twasn’t as if there was anythin’ to ’em, either. I know. I had to read ’em. They weren’t adventurous, nor smutty, nor what you’d call even interestin’

– and some amusing references to various Austen characters, particularly Reverend Collins, Lady Catherine de Bugg (de Bourgh), General Tilney and Miss Bates. There’s also a comment that Austen did “leave lawful issue in the shape o’ one son”, and that was Henry James. Fair enough. At one stage, Humberstall chalks their guns with the names of Austen characters. His Janeite superiors approve, though there is some discussion about whether he’d accorded the right name to the right gun. For example:

… they said I was wrong about General Tilney. ’Cordin’ to them, our Navy twelve-inch ought to ’ave been christened Miss Bates …

Of course, much has been written about this story, including its secret society setting, the Masons, and Kipling’s intentions about that – but these other issues are not my focus here.

What is of interest is Humberstall’s statement late in the story:

“… You take it from me, Brethren, there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place. …”

It is this that inspired our meeting because, while Kipling’s story is fiction, it is the case that Austen’s novels, among others, were provided to soldiers to read for morale. On the Kipling Society’s website is this:

In 1915, John Buchan and George Mackenzie-Brown, co-directors of Nelson, launched the highly successful Continental Library series, designed to be carried in soldiers’ pockets. Gassart [who wrote an article for the TLS in 2002] quotes the papers of W.B. Henderson, a Glaswegian schoolmaster attached to a Siege Battery in the Royal Garrison Artillery, in arguing that a book’s solace:

was its power to transport the infantryman from a world of “sergeants major and bayonet fighting, and trench digging and lorry cleaning and caterpillar greasing” into the fantasy of the novelist – and none was better at it than Jane Austen.

Her novels were also used during the war as part of therapy with shell-shock victims. Indeed, the above-mentioned Clare Harman says that three of Austen’s novels were “at the top of a graded Fever-Chart”. Academic Claire Lamont (in her paper, “Jane Austen and the nation”) suggests that this was because Austen’s “Englishness expresses itself as the standard of where and how one might live…”. Other critics have other ideas – though many of them are variations on this theme. One member of my group found a report that novels like Austen’s were used to gee-up damaged soldiers to get them back to the front! That shocked us somewhat. Bibliotherapy, it seems, is not a new thing.

Kipling, himself, was, not surprisingly, an Austen fan. As well as his story “The Janeites” (which term was coined by a critic back in the 1870s), he wrote a poem, whose final lines are used as an epigram for “The Janeites”:

Jane lies in Winchester, blessed be her shade!
Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made.
And while the stones of Winchester – or Milsom Street – remain,
Glory, Love, and Honour unto England’s Jane!

OK, so it’s a bit sentimental I admit, but he wrote it and that’s my excuse for using it to close today’s little commentary!

Rudyard Kipling
“The Janeites”
First published: Hearst’s International, MacLean’s, and the Story-Teller Magazine, May 1924
Available: Online at UWYO

Us Mob Writing, Too deadly (#BookReview)

March 15, 2019

Us Mob Writing, Too DeadlyToo deadly is an anthology of writings by the Canberra-based writing group Us Mob Writing. Comprising Australian First Nations writers, this group was formed in the late 1990s and is, apparently, one of our capital’s longest running writers’ groups. I saw advertising for the book’s launch back in late 2017, but was unable to attend. I was consequently thrilled to be offered a copy to review some months later. Finally, it worked its way to the top of the pile and I have read it. Things happen slowly here at the Gums!

The book comprises works by 11 women writers. It is introduced by Jeanine Leane whose novel Purple threads I reviewed a few years ago. She describes the content as including “prose and narrative poetry; flash fiction, fiction and creative non-fiction; and life writing.

It was interesting to read this just after reading Anita Heiss’s anthology, Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (my review). Heiss’s book, obviously, is all life-writing, while this anthology is more varied in form and subject matter, but, as in Heiss’s book, many of the works are overtly political, not surprisingly, but all writers speak of connection to culture, in some way.

Now, how to do this? I don’t usually discuss every writer in an anthology because doing so, without writing a tome, risks being superficial, but I’m going to try here and see if I can find a fair balance. You be the judge.

Wulli Wulli writer Lisa Fuller: eight pieces, mostly poetry. They deal with her writing practice, her sources of inspiration, and her sense of self. My heart went out to her struggles to accept that she is “good enough” in poems like “Who me?” and “Never enough” (“I will kill myself through/ should-i-n-g and my 20/20 judging”), but I also loved her sense of humour and word plays. “Waking” made me laugh, with the “only clock in the place/ disguised as a phone” as did her wry references to her “Master pieces” in “Electronic inclusions”, which describes her preference for “paper and pen” over keyboard. She also writes of nature and the inspiration it provides, including:

the mist envelops
its cool embrace
blocking everything
making the everyday
more mysterious

Juru-Kija poet Michelle Bedford: six poems, most of which directly address culture – her connection with it, and/or loss of it. In “Kindred Spirit-so many stories untold”, the refrain at the end of each verse is “so many stories untold”, while “Straight up and back with a certain native pride” tells of a hunting party and how engaging in cultural practice brings contentment and pride. Coming from the beautiful Kimberleys, she has some poems evoking her love of that landscape: “Colour me fine” is a love-letter to the Kimberley that I could relate to. Other poems are more overtly political. “Standing alone with others” and “I promise you … she is worthy” reminded me somewhat of Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s work.

Wiradjuri poet Yullara Reed: one poem, “Catch me if you can”. Told in the voice of a bird, her allegorical poem confronts its reader with the realities of indigenous life, particularly regarding the stolen generations, as the bird watches out for catchers. There’s a cheeky freshness to this poem which makes its message so much starker.

Erubian writer Chella Goodwin, from the Torres Strait: two poems and one prose piece. “Morning dreaming” is a gorgeous poem about yearning for a simpler life. Her irregular use of rhyme here is particularly effective. Many of us can relate to these lines, “microsoft word/ part of the city herd”, and to

divorcing the city
with its traffic and hustle
for straight roads to the horizon
where the kookaburras hustle

Bundjalung writer Samia Goudie: six pieces, mostly poems. They mourn a loss of culture, but also express defiance (particularly “White lie”) and sorrow (“Dirt child”). Her prose piece, “Coming home”, is a short story about a stolen generation daughter meeting her mother for the first time. The insensitivity of the church official, where the meeting is effected, is breathtaking. He wants a photo for, he says:

“… the church newsletter, the story, our story; it is such a great story. The congregation will love it.”

Whose story?

Yuin writer Brenda Gifford: one memoir piece about her life on the road, for ten years, with the mixed indigenous and non-indegnous band, Mixed Relations. Much of the story would be familiar to any band, I guess, except that this one has the added issue of race to deal with. She talks of confronting racism in Moree, and of the opposite in Brewarrina, where the local mob showed them the fish traps (now made famous by Bruce Pascoe in Dark emu.) She also writes of touring North America, and sharing experiences with First Nations Americans (not to mention trying their wonderful fried cornbread!)

Wiradjuri author Kerry Reed-Gilbert (grandmother of Yullara above) has ten pieces, and is the best-known, most published of the group. Reed-Gilbert also appears in Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, with a strong small town story. Some of her poems talk of dark history, such as blood loss and massacres in “The place in the paddock”, while others ask for Australians to work together, as in “Reflections” and “I know you”. Many of her pieces, as do those of others, talk of the wisdom of older people (uncles, grandfathers, grandmothers) and, further back, of the Old or Ancient Ones from whom the laws come.

Ngemba/Barkindji writer Barrina South: four pieces. Her poem “Ghost Gum” describes the ageing and regeneration of a tree, but surely also works as a metaphor for indigenous history – the losses (“pooled blood appears on the surface caused by previous contusions”) and the hope for the future (“She reaches up and gently sways/ Dancing in time with the stars…”) “Baaka” is more overtly political, but also uses nature, the river in this case, to oppose long connection with culture (and the “old people”) against loss (and “they [who] fence rivers”).

Wiradjuri poet Marissa McDowell: three pieces. “By the campfire” is a lovely hymn to indigenous creation spirit Biamie, “the maker of all things”, while “Me” is a plea to be respected “before all is lost/at what human cost”.

Kamilaroi writer Joyce Graham: eight pieces, starting with three haiku which lead into more powerful, pull-no-punches poems. “Proud Uncle” references, I believe, the story of the two indigenous men Jimmy Clements and John Noble who walked miles to attend the opening of Canberra’s provisional parliament house in 1927. It confronts us with our lack of interest (“ignored by white/ present not caring/ not curious/ Dismissive/ ignorant of your importance”). It’s a story most Canberrans didn’t know until recently. Certainly I didn’t – “ignorant”! “Life’s landscape” uses strong language, too, to make its point, describing “the white dust storm” and its aftermath.

Torres Strait Islander writer Samantha Faulkner: twelve pieces, including five prose pieces. Faulkner’s pieces, like many others, explore the history of indigenous experience in Australia. “The Old Man” also reflects on the Jimmy Clements and John Noble story, describing the two men as “compelled to be there”. “Tribute to Mabo” is another straightforward narrative poem about an indigenous hero. “One Day at Walpa (Walpa Gorge, Kata Tjuta/the Olgas” made me laugh at its depiction of tourists visiting this beautiful peaceful, place. And “It’s a small town world” succinctly conveys opposing images of small towns – narrow on one hand, and big-hearted on the other. Faulkner’s is, generally, a lighter touch than some in the book, but no less effective for that.

There are, then, recurring themes in the anthology, as you’d expect – to do with loss and disconnection caused by colonisation and white laws – but while some are angry (and understandably so), many are generous and hopeful, looking to a better future. Motifs recur too. There’s the wisdom of older people and of the Old Ones, and, of course, nature, particularly trees and birds, appears in many pieces.

Too deadly is a challenging book to read with its varied styles and tones, but it is well worth the effort because this very variety provides a breadth of insight that is not easily come by. I’ll close with some lines from McDowell’s “Me”, because, in many ways, it conveys the heart of the book (but apologies for not getting the lines’ layout right):

Images are plastered all over our screens
Scaring the weaker
And empowering the meaner
Open your door and open your mind
move a bit closer
I could be your friend
not an enemy
Who’s portrayed as the end.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeUs Mob Writing
(Eds. Kerry Reed-Gilbert, Samantha Faulkner, Barrina South)
Too deadly: Our voice, our way, our business
Us Mob Writing, 2017
ISBN: 9780992559823

(Review copy courtesy Sarah St Vincent Welch and Us Mob Writing)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Multicultural NSW Award

March 11, 2019

Synchronicity strikes again, this time concerning the idea of multiculturalism. In the last week or so, it has popped up several times – in Lisa’s post on the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist, in the conversation I attended last Thursday featuring historian Michelle Arrow on her book The Seventies, and then in the Festival Muse conversation this weekend featuring Asian-Australian writer Alice Pung. I’ve taken all this as a hint that I should talk a bit about multicultural writing in Australia and have decided that a good way to do it – this round anyhow – would be through the Multicultural NSW Award. It’s one of the many categories in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

Before focusing on the award, though, I’ll reiterate my comment in my Alice Pung conversation post (linked above) that during the conversation she mentioned several writers, all of whom are writers of migrant experience – Christos Tsiolkas, Benjamin Law and Anh Do. It gave me the sense that there’s quite a sense of fellow-feeling, or, at least, respect, amongst these writers. I like that: we all need peers with whom to share our challenges and experiences don’t we?

So, the Multicultural NSW Award

As far as I can tell, this award has changed name several times. It seems to have been established in 1980 as the Ethnic Affairs Commission Award. At some time its name changed to the Community Relations Commission Award, and then again, around 2014 I think, to the Multicultural NSW Award. From the start though, its goal and content has been the same.

It’s an interesting award because it is not form specific. Works submitted can be:

  • fiction;
  • non-fiction;
  • drama (in various forms, including plays, musicals, theatrical monologues);
  • poetry, single or in collection; or
  • screenplays/scripts for film, television, radio

The main limitation is content: submitted works must deal with or further our understanding of migrant experience, cultural diversity or multiculturalism in Australia. The prize is decent – currently $20,000.

Maxine Beneba Clarke, The hate raceRecent past winners are:

  • 2018: Roanna Gonsalves’ The permanent resident: short story collection
  • 2017: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The hate race: memoir (my review)
  • 2016: Osamah Sami’s Good Muslim boy: memoir
  • 2015: Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond’s Black and proud: The story of an AFL photo: social history/sociology
  • 2014 Joint winner: Andrew Bovell’s The secret river: playscript adapted from Kate Grenville’s novel The secret river
  • 2014 Joint winner: Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of travel: novel (my review)
  • 2013: Tim Soutphommasane’s Don’t go back to where you came from: social and political history
  • 2012: Tim Bonyhady’s Good living street: The fortunes of my Viennese family: biography of a family
  • 2011: Ouyang Yu’s The English class: novel (Lisa’s – ANZLitlovers – review)
  • 2010: Abbas El-Zein’s Leave to remain: A memoir: memoir

To see all the winners back to 1980, check out Wikipedia.

There are a few points worth making here, the first being that, as per the award criteria, the focus is the content, not the author so, while most of the winning authors come from diverse backgrounds, not all do. Andrew Bovell (and the author he adapted for his winning play, Kate Grenville) are both white Australians. The second point is that the award is true to its word about diversity of form, with the winners ranging from novels to social history, from plays to short stories. The winners also include at least one book for young people, Ursula Dubosarsky’s The first book of Samuel, back in 1995. The shortlists add to this diversity, by including, for example, poetry and television scripts. Another point is that the winning works cross time, from way past to the present. Finally, although a few of the winners over the history of the prize discuss or are by indigenous Australians, it’s good to see that in 2016, a biennial Indigenous Writer’s Prize worth $30,000 was added to NSW’s suite of awards.

I don’t want to write a long post tonight as there’s a lot going on in my life at present, so I’ll just conclude with some words from a 2014 guest post on the Wheeler Centre blog. The post is about the need for “true diversity in our media”. The writer Fatima Measham says that lack of diversity in our media

is a problem because it leaves us with a patently false construction of our society.


greater diversity of perspectives and commentators leads to clarity, a sharper sense of the aspects of conflict and power that grip democratic life.

I can’t think of a better argument for why we need to read diverse literature and, therefore, for the role that awards like the Multicultural NSW Award can play in bringing diverse voices to the fore.

Festival Muse 2019: Alice Pung in conversation with Sam Vincent

March 10, 2019

Muse FestivalFestival Muse, a literary festival run by one of our favourite places in town, Muse, now seems to be a fixture on the Canberra Day long weekend calendar. For the last two years Mr Gums and I have attended the Opening event, which this year was titled Moments of Wonder. As Opening Night was also International Women’s Day, the event was dedicated to women: it featured Sarah Avery, Aunty Matilda House, Kate Legge, Alice Pung and Annika Smethurst talking about their moments of wonder. Unfortunately, due to illness in my family, we had to cancel our attendance this year, but social media tells me it was excellent as usual.

However, I did fit in a one-hour Saturday afternoon session – and was accompanied by Daughter Gums, who was in town.

Alice Pung in conversation with Sam Vincent

Alice Pung will be known to most Australians. Based in Melbourne, she has written several books, including  two memoirs, Unpolished gem (read before blogging) and Her Father’s Daughter (my review), a young adult novel Laurinda, and Close to home, a collection of essays which inspired this conversation. She has also edited an anthology titled Growing up Asian in Australia, and she writes for Monthly magazine. Pung was in conversation with Canberra-based writer, Sam Vincent, whose 2015 book Blood and guts: Despatches from the whale wars was short and longlisted for various awards.

Sam Vincent and Alice PungThe back cover blurb for Close to home describes it as covering “topics such as migration, family, art, belonging and identity.”  However, given migration is the major theme running through Pung’s work, the conversation focused on this and the migrant experience in Australia. What was both interesting and chastening was that her family’s experiences were (are?) so very like those of indigenous Australians that are shared in Growing up Aboriginal in Australiaexcept that indigenous Australians get called different names and aren’t told to “go back to where you came from”! It’s particularly chastening because of the generosity with which so many migrants and indigenous Australians respond to the racism they live with on a daily basis. Pung talked about the racist comments yelled at them in the 1980s – the “go back to where you came from” variety – but commented that at the time Australia was going through a recession so the anger was understandable.

Pung talked quite a bit about her family, but much of that is covered in her two memoirs, so I won’t repeat them here. Vincent asked her about the difference between the subjects of her writing and her readers. Pung agreed that yes, her mother’s generation, the subjects of her stories, is not very literate. Consequently, the people she writes about rarely read what she says, and the people who read her tend to be middle-class white-haired white Australians. Guilty as charged! She doesn’t mind, though – as long as people are reading her books!

Alice PungPung talked a little about the traditional narrative arc of the migrant success story – and her desire not to write that. She talked about how when you sit people down to interview them their voice changes into this narrative of success, but she wants their own voices.

What I found particularly interesting was her discussion of racism and class. There’s the obvious racism – the name-calling, the “go back where you came from” shouts, and so on – but there’s also the softer, more patronising racism from people who believe themselves not racist. Questions from university-educated people, she said, such as “your mother has been here for 20 years, why doesn’t she speak English?”, indicate a lack of understanding of migration.

Continuing this theme, she understands, for example, people who follow Pauline Hanson while saying to her, “Youse are the good ones”. People she said are kind individually despite the confronting stickers on their cars. She understands “working class racists” because own parents are working class.

She talked about how “class” underpins racism. As a young qualified lawyer, she was getting nowhere in her interviews for law jobs because she was not dressed the way a middle-class white Australian professional would dress. She appreciated honesty from her friends she said, such as the one who explained her dress issue to her. As soon as she changed her dress she started getting interview call-backs, even though the content of her interview responses hadn’t changed. She realised then how class works.

She referred, during the conversation, to a number of migrant and/or refugee writers including Christos Tsiolkas, Benjamin Law and Anh Do. She quoted Tsiolkas who has said that the middle class can write what they like – be as liberal as they like – but refugees will always be placed in working class communities!

Pung has a broad, historical understanding of racism. Since white settlement of Australia, she said, some group has always been ostracised – the Irish, then Greeks and Italians, then Asians, and so on. (Such racism, she argued, is not confined to Australia.) She also teased out the oft-criticised racism found in migrant communities themselves. Her parents, for example, suffered significantly under the Pol Pot regime before they came to Australia. What settled, established migrants fear, she suggested, is not so much “other” but civic unrest. She also noted that migrants from unstable countries trust democracy and, in doing so, trust and believe Australian newspapers. A newspaper like the Herald-Sun, which the educated middle-class might reject, is perfect for many migrants because it uses simple sentences. Racism, she said, is nuanced – and has less to do with colour than with class.

Vincent also asked her about her voice, her use of vernacular, in her books. She talked about wanting to use the language used by people like her parents, a less formal language. You can talk like Kevin Rudd, she said cheekily, and have only 30% of what you say be understood, or you can talk simply to be fully understood. She appreciated her first editor who left usages in like “youse”. She also talked about her parents’ humour, and their wonderful use of metaphors despite their basic English. She admitted that she was fortunate to have been perpetually embarrassed by her parents! She said she had to write her first books carefully because she “didn’t want to tell a success story, but an Aussie battler story”.

Regarding her intentions for her writing, she strongly rejected having a didactic aim – no one wants a message, she said. However, she hoped her books did inform and educate. She reiterated this during the Q&A when she was asked what she would say to Pauline Hanson if she ever met her face-to-face. She said that she doesn’t believe you can change someone by saying something to them in a one-off situation like that, but that books might change people.

She agreed with Vincent’s suggestion that there’s a dearth of working class voices in Australian literature.

Q & A

There was a Q & A, but I’ve incorporated the main points into the discussion above. However, Daughter Gums’ final question went down a different path. The question was inspired by the work Pung does with school students, and concerned whether school students ask different questions to those asked by adults. Yes, said Pung, they don’t have the filter that adults have, so can ask bald questions like “how much money do you earn?” Pung gave us her answer, explaining the numerical and thus economic difference between an Australian best-seller (10,000 books sold) and an American one (10,000 sold per week!)

She shared some entertaining and enlightening anecdotes throughout the conversation and Q&A, but I reckon we should all read her book(s) to enjoy those!

I must say that I found thirty-something Pung articulate, warm, and grounded. She makes serious points, and tells difficult stories at times, but with a grace that’s inspiring. A big thanks to Muse for including her in this year’s event.

Alice Pung Close to home
Festival Muse
Saturday 9 March, 2.30-3.30pm

Michelle Arrow in conversation with Frank Bongiorno

March 9, 2019

A few days ago, Mr Gums and I attended another ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author event, this one featuring Australian historian Michelle Arrow in conversation with Australian historian Frank Bongiorno. It was an especially interesting pairing because Arrow’s book, which she is currently touring, is titled The seventies: The personal, the political and the making of modern Australia, while Frank Bongiorno wrote, just 4 years ago, The eighties: The decade that transformed Australia. So, it was a case of the Seventies facing off against the Eighties! Fortunately no blood was shed…

The conversation was introduced, as usual, by MC Colin Steele, who does a marvellous job of organising and mc-ing these events. In his intro, he told us that one of the main threads in Arrow’s book is the now well-known idea that the personal is political. This theme also ran through the conversation.

The Seventies was a big decade for me. It’s the decade in which I graduated, established my professional career, and married. It’s also the decade in which I read Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch, and when the great reformer, Gough Whitlam, came to power – and showed what a government with vision and heart could do. I must say that it is rather disconcerting to think that an era in which we were fully adult is now the subject of serious history! Such is life!

Now, the conversation …

The conversation

Michelle Arrow, The SeventiesBongiorno commenced by asking Arrow how she defined her decade. Before I share her answer, I should explain that Arrow later told us that, while Bongiorno had taken a comprehensive look at the Eighties, she had narrowed her decade’s focus to gender and sexuality. This affected how she defined the decade. So, her answer was that she took the formation of the Homosexual Law Reform Society in the ACT in 1969 as her start, and the Women Against Rape in War protests (which also originated in Canberra) of the early 1980s as her end. She noted that soon after these protests, the ANZAC narrative began to dominate our national mythology.

Bongiorno asked Arrow to describe the discourse characterising the Seventies. Arrow talked about its being a time of rapid social and economic change and, consequently, of some disarray. Feminism and Gay Rights were big issues.

The conversation then turned to the theme mentioned by Colin Steele that the personal is the political. The main example of this, Arrow explained, is feminism. Women began to realise that their personal experiences and concerns (economic and social, for example) were structurally and politically based. Formal and informal consciousness-raising groups began exploring the underlying issues. This theme also played out in the gay and lesbian rights movement: being gay was also seen as having a political component. She mentioned here the work of the early-1970s-formed group, CAMP (Campaign Against Moral Persecution).

After this rather long introduction, we got to the core of Arrow’s book, the Royal Commission on Human Relationships. This Commission grew out of the Whitlam government’s failed attempt to reform abortion law. It was reading the fascinating personal submissions to this Commission that inspired Arrow’s book. While the Dismissal and Fraser’s election resulted in funding cuts to the Commission, bringing the Report forward and affecting the end result, the submissions themselves remain valuable.

Bongiorno noted that this Commission initiated a new role and purpose for these sorts of enquiries. Arrow agreed, explaining that it legitimated people’s stories and played a therapeutic role, both of which we still see today. (The recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is a good example)

Another issue discussed was that of violence – and its appearance in the submissions. Violence also reflects “the personal is the political” theme. Corporal punishment for children, violence against women and girls, and gay bashing were all issues that played out politically. Bongiorno referred to Pierre Trudeau’s famous statement that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”. Arrow explored the paradoxical nature of this argument: homosexual people sought freedom and privacy for the expression of their sexuality, while women were seeking protection for theirs!

There was of course a discussion about the Pill and its role. I was interested, given contemporary politics, in Arrow’s comment that the liberation of the 1960s, afforded by developments like the Pill, transformed in the 1970s to concerns with identity.

Bongiorno, though, pushed on to ask about the relationship between women’s liberation and the sexual revolution. Arrow talked about researching 1970s popular culture. She read magazines like Cleo and Forum, and suggested that Cleo had a more feminist aspect underpinning its exploration of sexuality and bodily knowledge, than did Forum. She commented that “letters to the editor” were particularly informative. She shared her shock on reading a response to a letter about father-daughter incest that said it was caused by wives not satisfying their husbands. How far we have (hopefully) come!

She also looked at movies – such as Alvin Purple and Petersen – for their evocation of sex, class and gender.

The conversation concluded by discussing Whitlam, the Seventies, and whether it matters. Arrow argued that there was a particular convergence in Australia of the height of the women’s liberation movement and the election of the Whitlam government. This resulted in things like Elizabeth Reid becoming the first women’s adviser to a leader anywhere in the world, to a big government commitment to International Women’s year, to attempts to reform abortion law (still an issue today), and the Royal Commission on Human Relationships. Fraser, coming into power at the end of 1975, had to face this new infrastructure. She traces in her book what happened to women’s issues as time passed – for example, to Women’s Refuge funding made by Whitlam in 1975.

Q & A

The Q&A, though brief, demonstrated the audience’s knowledge of the Seventies! Topics included:

  •  No-fault divorce laws (the Family Law Act of 1975): Arrow agreed this was crucial social change, and it is covered in the book
  • Multiculturalism: This is mentioned in the book, but given her focus, it’s mostly in relation to migrant and indigenous women in the women’s movement, and how the movement accommodated difference.
  • Indigenous issues (Tent Embassy, Land rights, etc): Again, because of her focus, her coverage mostly relates to women. She noted that because of Indigenous people’s specific concerns, Indigenous women did not particularly feel part of the women’s movement.
  • Education: Arrow agreed that Whitlam’s opening up access to tertiary education was transformative, and that it was particularly so for middle-class women (rather than for its main intention, working class people.) This led to the rise of women’s studies in universities, and to women (as teachers) then taking their learning out to schools – proving, again, that “the personal is political”.
  • Backlash against feminism: Arrow noted PM Malcolm Fraser’s (1975-1983) “more fractious” relationship with the women’s movement, and the rise of anti-feminist groups. However, the women’s movement, she said, “opened up spaces for protest”.

Another questioner cheekily asked which decade – the 70s or 80s – was most influential, to which the replies were mutually respectful!

The final question I’ll share concerned whether “the personal is political” theme played out in other parts of the world. Arrow responded “yes, mostly in women’s movements”, but that in Australia the convergence of Whitlam with women’s movement gave it a particular flavour. She noted the significance of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships being not just about work but private life as well, and that this influenced the flavour of action in Australia.

Vote of thanks

Frank Bongiorno, The eightiesSociologist/social commentator Hugh Mackay gave an inspired vote of thanks. With a cheeky glint, he compared the subtitle of Arrow’s 70s book – “the making of modern Australia” – with that of Bongiorno’s 80s book – “the decade that transformed Australia”.

He discussed the major “revolutions” Arrow explores – women’s and gay rights. He noted that histories like Arrow’s show how rocky these were, and how far we have come. It is because of these revolutions, he suggested, that we now better understand Gender and Equality. He then talked a bit about gender and its place today – and why young women seem to feel that it, as a concept, is less relevant to the inclusive, gender-blind, world we want. However, he said, those wanting to eschew the “feminist” tag might want to read Arrow’s book to see just how rocky and difficult it’s been to get where we are today.

It was a lively and engaged encounter, and one which I’ve got even more out of by writing up!

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
7 March 2019

Stella Prize 2019 Shortlist announced

March 8, 2019

As you probably know, the Stella Prize is the award I particularly like to follow, though I don’t always post on the Longlist and the Shortlist as I am this year. The Longlist was announced on 7 February (my post), and the shortlist was announced, today, International Women’s Day, as has, appropriately, become tradition.

Here is the shortlist:

What an interesting list – and one for which I’ve already read two, and am currently reading a third. This year there are two, not one, non-fiction works on the list, out of the five on the longlist.

Louise Swinn, the 2019 Judging Panel Chair, says that:

The six finalists on the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist explode the myth of the death of the book, and they are a hearty response to the under-representation of women’s work in awards. This is an incredibly diverse knot of books, with broad subjects showing that identity is shaped across many continents and informed by many cultures. Non-fiction and fiction works stray from their formal constraints as authors give authentic voices to those who are otherwise under-represented. The books on this shortlist inform and entertain, and while they speak absolutely to our moment, their insights are timeless

Anyhow, what do I think about the list? Well, it is an intriguing one – and from what I’ve heard and/or read myself the list encompasses quite a variety of concerns and styles, and is not, probably, what you’d call conventional! Whether you agree with the judges choices or not, I like this.

The winner receives $50,000, and each shortlisted author receives $3000, as well as a three-week writing retreat on the Victorian coast. It’s a lovely generous prize. The winner will be announced on 9 April.

Now, I’ll get back to my reading … but if you have any comments on the list, I’d love to hear them.

Maria Edgeworth, Leonora (#BookReview)

March 6, 2019

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

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

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

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

Now, Leonora

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

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

Poor Olivia!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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