Well, that was, surprisingly, genuinely enjoyable. Louise Mack’s Girls together is a sequel to her novel Teens (see Bill’s review), and features protagonist Lennie (Elinor) Leighton. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, given I know something about Mack, through my Monday Musings on her and my review of her debut novel The world is round, but it was, because …
The novel starts with this paragraph:
Square and solid as ever, stood the old brown school, with the fig-trees standing in its playground. The wooded staircase was as firm as even under the rush and onslaught of hurrying feet; the sturdy gate still bore with patience the cruel slammings of girls, big and little, rushing in late when the bell had finished ringing, or hastening homewards before half the school had left the classrooms.
It goes on to describe the chaos and disorganisation attending Lennie who is running late for her train home, and has, besides, lost her ticket. I thought that I was in for a pretty traditional school story. School stories were my favourite stories when I was a young reader, but now, of course, my interests are very different. I was prepared to persevere, however, because I was reading the book for Bill’s AWW Gen 2 Week and because this is a classic written in 1898 by a too-little known Australian woman writer. (You may wonder why I specifically chose it, but it was a serendipitous decision, being one of the books I found in my late aunt’s house when I was managing her estate. Bill’s week proved the perfect opportunity to read it.)
As it turned out, the book is not a traditional school story. School is part of it, but the focus is 16-year-old Lennie at a point of transition in her life – and her relationship with her 18-year-old friend Mabel, who returns in the opening chapters from Paris and is training to be an artist. Now, Lennie belongs to the tradition of some other famous sisters – like Judy in Ethel Turner’s Seven little Australians, Jo in Little women, and even, in a way, Elizabeth in Pride and prejudice. She’s impulsive more than sensible, but is loyal and generous of heart to those whom she loves. She lives with her parents (the Mother and the Doctor), her big brother Bert who is at University, and her little sisters, sensible Floss, gentle obedient Mary and the youngest, 11-year-old Brenda, who is observant, quick and a bit naughty. I’m sure you can recognise some of these “types”.
There is a marriage plot – but not for Lennie. This is more a coming-of-age book than a romance: it’s about Lennie’s transition from self-focused girlhood to adulthood and its associated more mature world-view. This, Mack handles nicely. Her characters may be recognisable types – but they are also individualised. Mack captures how girls feel, how they relate to each other authentically. Here is Lennie meeting her friend Mabel after two years’ separation:
You see they merely hovered on the outskirts of all they meant to say, touching things lightly, with the shyness of their reunion still lingering around lips and eyes. But as the twilight deepened, and darkness came softly into the bedroom, laughs grew more and more frequent with them.
But, there are many writers who capture relationships and communication well. What makes this book particularly interesting to read for us, now – and here I’m repeating the point made by Bill – is the social history, the picture Mack paints of 1890s Sydney, including a reference to the Banking Crisis of 1893. The reference is brief, but it is used as a plot point in the trajectory of Lennie’s life.
More interesting, though, is the discussion of gender. Louise Mack was not, I understand, an activist in the Australian suffrage movement but she was part of the “women-oriented culture” which was becoming increasingly visible from the 1890s. Gender issues, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, underpin much of what happens in Girls together. Indirectly, it’s there, for example, in an assumption that “girls” can go to university. Whether they should or shouldn’t isn’t even discussed. It’s just assumed that they can. Direct references, though, abound. Mabel’s art teacher in Paris tells her:
‘When you go back to Australia, Mees, you just take care you do not marry, for eef you marry you will never paint better than you do now.’
And the girls themselves frequently discuss gender issues, sometimes with Lennie’s brother Bert. There’s a discussion about ambition where Bert suggests that Mabel and Lennie talk about it constantly while men, he says, never do. Does this reflect women’s increasing awareness that they can have goals beyond the domestic? There’s a reference to Lennie’s mother’s anxiety about the potential for girls failing in their push for “public” careers, and, being a woman of her times, she “would have kept them back from success rather than let them face the chance of failure.” All this is told naturally, not melodramatically, giving a realistic sense of a normal family facing changing times. We see parents having their thoughts and concerns, but supporting their children, rather than opposing them.
Nonetheless, this is a book of the 1890s. So, when Lennie is told by Mabel’s art teacher – a character respected in the novel – that “It’s better to be a good woman than a great one, little girl … unless you can be both”, I wondered what Mack really saw as options for her heroine.
All I can say is that the novel has an open ending. This may be because Mack planned to write more about the family – and she did write a third novel, Teens triumphant, in 1933 – but perhaps it also reflects an awareness that girls’ lives aren’t complete at the age of 17 or so, and that Lennie still has a chance at greatness!
Finally, there are lovely descriptions of Sydney, but again this is not overdone. In this week’s Monday Musings, I quoted a reviewer writing in 1917 that Capel Boake had “not made the mistake, very common with our writers, of painting in the ‘local colour’ so heavily that the human element in the picture is lost in what we may call a superficial provincialism of incident and characterisation.” Well, neither did Mack make this mistake, some twenty years earlier. The colour is there and is lovely, but is used sparingly to set the scene – and perhaps convey some attendant emotions:
The year was at September, when suddenly Summer came stepping down from her niche among the seasons, and ousted Spring before her time was well begun. The hot winds from the great inland plains of New South Wales blew down over the mountains to this city at the Harbour’s edge, and suddenly everyone woke from their winter cosiness, and furs and fires, and delightful nights, to find that the time for sleeping was over, and the restless nights and long, trying days of the Australian summer-time had come again, long before their time was due.
Girls together is an entertaining, refreshingly written story that clearly draws on Mack’s own experiences and concerns. It also reflects the social consciousness for which the period is well-known and, as an urban novel, it offers an antidote to the “bush realism” school which largely typifies Bill’s Gen 2 period. Well worth reading if you get the opportunity.