Epiphany in Harrower’s “The fun of the fair”

With Bill’s AWW Gen 4 Week still in play, I hoped I’d find something relevant to share from Reading like an Australian writer. And there was, a discussion by novelist Emily Maguire of a short story by Elizabeth Harrower. The short story, as you can probably guess, is titled “The fun of the fair” and it opens Harrower’s collection, A few days in the country, and other stories (my review).


I love short stories, so love that Maguire chose to explore one in Castles’ anthology. Moreover, I was thrilled to see that her angle was the “epiphany”. I have loved that word since I first came across it. It has such a great sound and look.

In her essay, Maguire briefly discusses its meaning. She starts with its religious origins as “a moment of spiritual or divine revelation”, and then says that, in a literary sense, it describes “a different kind of realisation”. She gives examples from To kill a mockingbird, and from Disney’s Frozen and Dumbo. She doesn’t, I was surprised to see, mention the writer though whom I was introduced to the concept, James Joyce – and his novel A portrait of a young man.

So, I did a browser search to see if my memory was correct, and yes, it was, at least according to Wikipedia:

Author James Joyce first borrowed the religious term “Epiphany” and adopted it into a profane literary context in Stephen Hero (1904-1906), an early version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In that manuscript, Stephen Daedalus defines epiphany as “a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.” Stephen’s epiphanies are moments of heightened poetic perception in the trivial aspects of everyday Dublin life, non-religious and non-mystical in nature. 

Wikipedia says more, including that “Scholars used Joyce’s term to describe a common feature of the modernist novel, with authors as varied as Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Ezra Pound, and Katherine Mansfield all featuring these sudden moments of vision as an aspect of the contemporary mind”. And then the penny dropped. I suddenly remembered that Bill had decided to pop Harrower, who straddles his Gen 3 and 4 eras, into Gen 3, which we did last year, because she was “a modernist”.

But now, given the origin of “epiphany” is less important to us than its use and relevance to our reading, let’s get back to Maguire and “The fun of the fair”. Maguire makes a couple of points about epiphanies: they are internal, that is, they come as “a shift within the character”, and “they are not the result of logic or conscious reasoning”.

Indeed, Maguire says they can come “seemingly out of the blue”. In the rest of her essay she provides a close reading to show just how our 10-year-old protagonist’s epiphany comes about. I checked my marginalia for the story, and found that I’d written that the fakeness in the sideshow Janet attended had “shocked her into her own truth”. This is essentially true, but Maguire describes the build-up so eloquently in her analysis. She says that young Janet, who, at the end, “ran, not crying now, but brilliant-eyed” is “experiencing an extreme surge of emotion, so she wouldn’t, and doesn’t, stop to articulate this”. But, she has had a feeling, an epiphany, that we readers see as hopeful, as something that will take her forward into the next stage of her life. I thoroughly enjoyed Maguire’s analysis.

Now, I’ll bring this back to our AWW Gen 3 and 4 discussions. Maguire comments near the beginning of her essay, that ‘sometimes the epiphanic moment is obvious because it’s announced outright with a phrase like “She suddenly realised that”…’ However, she continues,

What this kind of signposting gives us in clarity it may take away in verisimilitude. In real life, a person may experience a powerful feeling or thought that, looking back later, they might call an epiphany. But in the moment itself, the person is probably so busy experiencing the insights or revelation that they don’t pause to note its occurrence.

Elizabeth Harrower, being a realist writer, Maguire says, won’t have her characters exclaim they’ve had an epiphany, but will show us, the readers, that something has changed. She certainly does this with Janet. This made me think of Margaret Barbalet’s Blood in the rain (my review), and Jessie’s epiphany at the end. Jessie is older than Janet, and reflects consciously about life, so her epiphany is more signposted, but elegantly so. Near the end, she sees a garden and finds herself “clamped in the cruel snares of memory”. Memory jolted, she comes to a realisation that, like Janet’s, is a hopeful one. It’s not a guaranteed “happy-ever-after” but the novel closes with a vision of a more positive Jessie than she had been for some time. The power of the epiphany!

I am enjoying this anthology.

Emily Maguire
‘”Not crying now, but brilliant-eyed”: Epiphany in Harrower’s “The fun of the fair”‘
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 233-243
ISBN: 9781742236704

Elizabeth Harrower
“The fun of the fair”
in A few days in the country, and other stories
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2015
pp. 1-14
ISBN: 9781925240566

Elizabeth Harrower, The long prospect (#BookReview)

Oppression and tyranny, power and manipulation in human relationships are the stuff of Elizabeth Harrower’s writing, at least in my experience of it, and so I found it again in her second novel The long prospect. Unlike The watch tower (my review), however, which explores the more traditional domination of women by a man, The long prospect’s tyrant is narcissistic grandma Lilian who makes pre-pubescent granddaughter Emily’s life a misery. Why is a novel about a cruel, manipulative person wielding power over someone whom they should love so enjoyable? Let me try to explain …

The long prospect, which was first published in 1958, is set in postwar Ballowra, a fictionalised industrial town based on Newcastle, just a couple of hours’ drive north of Sydney. The major part of it takes place in the home of forty-seven-year-old Lilian who wields sadistic power over all who come within her purview, including but not limited to the aforesaid granddaughter Emily. The novel starts, in fact, with Lilian visiting her ex-tenant and apparent friend, thirty-something Thea, in her new apartment in another part of Ballowra. Lilian walks into the apartment, without being invited, “her eyes on swivels”, and very quickly we realise that this friendship is one in which Lilian has assumed power but is now feeling put out. Words like “disapproval”, “frowning” and “affronted” leave us in no doubt that Lilian’s visit is not the sort of generous one you’d expect from someone visiting their friend in their new home.

This controlling, self-centred, unaffectionate behaviour of Lilian’s, as I’ve said, is not limited to Thea and Emily but extends to all her relationships, including to her daughter Paula, and to the various men who populate the novel, such as the hapless “boy-friend” Rosen and the tender, thoughtful but powerless boarder Max.

At the heart of The long prospect is Emily’s desperate search for affection and attention, which she finally finds in this thirty-something Max, who had been introduced earlier, by name only, as a past lover of Thea. Max warms to the intelligent – but clearly neglected – young girl, and starts spending time with her, mentoring her intellectual and emotional development. Unfortunately, this doesn’t go unnoticed by Lilian’s self-centred and jealous entourage, and eventually insinuations are made that bring about the novel’s denouement. Before that, though, Emily’s blossoming enthusiasm for life and learning is a delight to see.

Harrower constructs her novel and builds up the tone and tension beautifully. She introduces Lilian’s character via her opening visit to Thea. She sets up Emily’s need for affection and her subsequent bond with Max through her previous attachment to Thea and her desperate crushes on teachers. Harrower’s word use is precise, from the recurring appearance of “grey”, describing people and place, to the plain spare language that pares relationships and actions down to their essence. Here’s the desperate Rosen, trailing after Lilian into the kitchen, still hoping she will keep him:

There, catching her, he chances a reproachful expression, seeing that, anyway, her grey eyes were no longer hard, but mild and blank. She had quite abandoned her fiery mood. He was reassured, and smiled at her sheepishly. Her new look must mean apology. In fact, Lilian thought about salmon sandwiches. She filled the kettle.

Catastrophic emptiness

But, now, here’s the thing folks. I finished this book, and half-wrote this post, just before my Dad died three weeks ago. I am having trouble remembering all the thoughts I had while reading it, thoughts that particularly related to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Realism vs Modernism discussion we were having – but I’ll try. Harrower falls primarily into the Modernist tradition. She reflects the ills of the time through individual psyches, rather than exploring causes and social impacts as we find in Realist books like Mena Calthorpe’s The dyehouse (1961) (my review).

Both Emily and Max feel the psychological impacts of their environments. Early on Emily, desperate to belong, finds herself an outsider yet again:

There was a chill lack of desirability about the room she had left, and about those she might enter – a bleak and rigid lack of warmth that penetrated the future as well as the present and the past.

Max recognises that he had responded to “the catastrophic emptiness of the past few years” by settling for:

Comfortable resignation. He looked at the idea of it. It had not always been that, but the change had been slow and subtle, worked in him secretly. Now the metamorphosis was complete, surprising, disagreeable. (p. 150)

Disagreeable, particularly now that a crisis involving Emily, whom he had wanted to nurture and protect, had come:

Max fought down a sense of alienation … (p. 150)

And yet, in The long prospect there is also a subtle backdrop of the industrialisation that is one of the drivers behind Modernism’s theme of alienation and the individual. Emily’s father Harry Lawrence, on his way for a rare visit with her, considers his old home town:

After years in the country, this subjection to industry, the smoky sky, the matured deterioration immanent at the birth of such towns as Ballowra left him oppressed and indignant. He was unwilling that it should be so bad.

The overriding sense in the book – from all the characters – those we like, and those we don’t, is one of disappointed lives. Max is one of those we like, for his warmth and his capacity for mature reflection:

No external excuse, not lack of this or that fine feeling could be counted as justification. Nothing could undo the harm these casual people had done. Yet, Max argued, they were themselves and lived as they could, and had not been wisely treated either, very likely.

I like the “very likely” qualification! I also like this fundamentally non-judgemental attitude, that doesn’t then follow through to excusing poor behaviour. Max goes on: “it was too easy to exempt from responsibility those who felt no responsibility for their actions. Too easy, reductive, wrong.” In other words, understand but don’t excuse!

The long prospect is thoroughly engaging, despite its overall depressing subject matter. The perfection of Harrower’s insight into human psychology combined with the delicious precision of her writing make it, yes, a joy to read, even though Emily’s plight is heartrending. It’s no wonder, really, that Patrick White was disappointed when Harrower stopped writing. He knew a good writer when he saw one.

Read for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) AWW Gen 3 Week; also reviewed by Kim (Reading Matters).

Challenge logo

Elizabeth Harrower
The long prospect
Melbourne: Text Classics, 2012 (Orig. ed. 1958)
ISBN: 9781922079480

Bill curates: M.L. Skinner’s The hand

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit. During the latter part of January we will look at some of Sue’s older posts which have relevance to my Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week, Part II,17-23 Jan, 2021

Mollie Skinner is a little known Western Australian who served as a VAD (nurse) during WWI. Her importance to Australian Literature is that she co-wrote a novel with DH Lawrence, The Boy in the Bush (1924). She also wrote an account of her time as a VAD, and some other novels as well, at least two with some assistance from Lawrence.


My original post titled: “M.L. (Mollie) Skinner, The hand (#Review)”

ML Skinner, The fifth sparrow

Pam of Travellin’ Penguin blog read ML Skinner’s short story “The hand” for a challenge she was doing, and, when I expressed interest in it, very kindly sent me a copy. “The hand” is a mysterious little story – and by little, I mean, little in that it takes up less than 7 pages of the anthology, Australian short stories, that she found it in.

Now, the story is a bit tricky, and I think is best understood within the context of Skinner’s biography. She was born in Perth in 1876, but the family moved to England and Ireland in 1878. Mollie was a keen student and reader but had to abandon formal education in 1887 because of an ulcerated cornea, which resulted in her spending much of the next five years in a darkened room with bandaged eyes. After cauterisation partially restored her sight, she started to write poems and stories. Presumably this was around 1892 (ie 5 years after 1887?) when she was about 16 years old. Later she trained as a nurse, which gave her her main living. And then, the ADB biography (linked to above) says something interesting in terms of our reading of this story:  “she recognized within herself an intuitive power, or sixth sense.” A little later in the biography, we are also told that “Mollie believed that God’s hand on her shoulder guided her life. She dabbled in the occult”. She returned to Australia in 1900, though returned to England later to study. She also travelled to India, and served there and Burma during World War 1.

So to the story, which was first published in 1924. It is set in a “mining hospital back there in the west.” As there was “little doing” and the light too dim to read by, the Matron is encouraged to tell a story which she is “good at” doing. They – presumably the off-duty staff – ask her about her life in “those posts way back in the interior”. Was she ever frightened, they ask?

‘Of what?’
‘Well–the loneliness. And bad white men, and bad blacks. Of patients in delirium. Or some awful maternity case you couldn’t handle.’
‘I didn’t think about it. I did what I could. I was frightened once, though: and that, really, by a nurse screaming. A nurse shouldn’t scream.’

Interesting, the “bad white men, and bad blacks”, but I’ll just take that as another of those ways in which contemporary stories provide us insight into the times, and move on with the story. She then tells the story of the scream. She describes the small outback post, the sense of community they had, and the little L-shaped hospital which was open to the bush on one side, and the road and railroad on the other. There were two other nurses besides herself, one being Nurse Hammer “a regular town girl, very attractive, but unstable, untried.” On the night of the scream, our Matron story-teller was doing accounts while the two nurses were chatting with the patients. Our Matron’s mind kept wandering she says. She’s

very practical, really, and then liable to feel things in the air, things that other people don’t seem aware of. My father called it “unwarranted interference”; and told me to taboo it. But it gets hold of me sometimes: and this evening I was uneasy, aware of “something”. There seemed to be a sound.

But, she can’t identify anything, so continues to try to work. She hears Nurse Hammer go to bed, and then – the scream. The rest of the story concerns locating the scream – it was Nurse Hammer – and working out the cause of it – a hand has grabbed Hammer’s leg.

In the end, there’s a practical explanation for “the hand” but along the way there’s a sense of an awakening or at least, a growing up, for Nurse Hammer. Initially, the Matron is

conscious, not only of Hammer’s terrible fear, but of a deeper source, dark and secret within herself. I remembered how lovely she was. How men in the wards watched with furtive eyes as she walked past. I remembered the way she walked–how she avoided those eyes. I knew then that the girl had herself been tempted, that she was powerless, now, in this dark room, because in her own life she was passing through crisis.

The Matron finds herself praying that “whatever we found in this room would not be evil.”

Skinner builds up the suspense well, the darkness, the lantern going out, until eventually the cause of the scream is determined. Before it is fully explained though, Nurse Hammer has a little more to endure, but, says Matron,

I glanced at Hammer. The Nightingale light was flooding her face …

And the Matron goes on to use words that imply a biblical aspect to Hammer’s enlightenment – but if I say more, I’ll give away the story which I’m not sure I want to do (though unfortunately the story does not seem to be available online).

Interestingly, Skinner attracted the attention of DH Lawrence … but I think I might make this the subject of tomorrow’s Monday Musings! Meanwhile, I think the story is to be understood in the sense of a divine intervention intended to test and try Nurse Hammer, from which she emerges, in a sense, reborn and now a real nurse, like Florence Nightingale. (But, I could be wrong.)

ML (Mollie) Skinner
“The hand” (1924)
in Australian short stories (1951)
ed. by Walter Murdoch and Henrietta-Drake Brockman
(pp. 148-154)


Bill has also posted on Mollie Skinner – on her collaboration with DH Lawrence – so please check out his post, ‘Writing The Boy in the Bush’ too.

As always, we would love to hear your thoughts, particularly whether you have read Mollie Skinner or any of DH Lawrence’s Australian writing?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Realism and Modernism

Now that’s an aspirational title for you, and one that I will not live up to in terms of expectations. However, I wanted to write something for Bill (The Australian Legend)’s AWW Gen 3 Week (Part 2). As its focus is, primarily, Realism and Modernism in Australian literature from post-WW1 to 1960, and, as my plan is to contribute a review of an Elizabeth Harrower novel, I figured I could leap into this Realism-Modernism murk and see what I could find!

Essentially, of course, most of us readers just want to read good books, and not worry too much about the trends and “isms” that the academics love, but it is sometimes interesting to think about them – at least a little. Bill has written clearly on the subject on his AWW Gen 3 page, so I’m just going to add a few thoughts and ideas that I’ve gleaned from around the place.

Mena Calthorpe, The dyehouse

Realism – social realism, which is really what we are talking about here – is fundamentally a sociopolitical movement which was concerned about the oppression of the working class by capitalist forces. Its drivers are social rather than psychological, group-focused rather than individual-based. It was the main fictional approach of the first half of the twentieth century, and was a driving feature of Australian literature of the 1920s to 1950s. Mena Calthorpe’s The dyehouse (my review), published in 1961 but set in the mid-1950s, is a good example. In my post, I noted that the characters are types, reflecting the various “players” in the worker-capitalist struggle, but are also authentic, psychologically real human beings which helps make it such a good read. There’s no escaping the fact, though, that Calthorpe’s intent is political.

Book cover

Modernism, on the other hand, focuses more on the individual – on, as Bill quotes, “decay and a growing alienation of the individual. The machinery of modern society is perceived as impersonal, capitalist, and antagonistic to the artistic impulse”. A significant exponent of modernism in Australia was Patrick White. A whole slew of Australian women writers are identified with Realism, but there’s also a good representation of them who worked in the Modernist style, such as Christina Stead, Eve Langley and Elizabeth Harrower (all of whom I’ve reviewed here.) Modernism, the theory goes I believe, eschewed realism.

Realism, or Modernism – or, both?

However, as with all things, real life doesn’t always suit theory, and writers, in particular, don’t always “know” that they are supposed fit the prescriptions of the theorists! So, it was with interest that I read an article about Elizabeth Harrower that discussed this very problem. The article, which appeared in Australian Literary Studies, 15 (3) 1992, is by Nicholas Mansfield, and is titled “‘The Only Russian in Sydney’: Modernism and Realism in The Watch Tower“. Mansfield opens with

Elizabeth Harrower The watch tower

In the post-war period, the dichotomy between Realism and Modernism seemed to summarise all the important rivalries in Australian fiction — nationalist enthusiasm and political responsibility lined up against cosmopolitan sophistication and formalist experimentation. Given the approximate and tendentious nature of the terms of this dichotomy, it was inevitable that writing that could not fall easily into one or other of its broad categories would be met with some uncertainty and perhaps eventually ignored. The aim of this article is to show how a novel which met such a fate, Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower, both discusses and defies the simple dichotomy that Australian literary critics in the 1960s were so keen to maintain as their paradigm.

It’s a long article, but the gist is that while there is a Realist aspect to Harrower’s novel – a study of power, and a quest for freedom – it is Modernist by refusing to “definitively explain the basis of power” and by refusing to rely on an “essential truth”, on, I suppose, an absolute reason or answer. These refusals “radically contradict the traditional purposes of Realism” which he called “the most social and rational of all literary modes”. Mansfield argues that

Harrower’s novel, like the work of Christina Stead before her and Helen Garner after her, attempted to subject the techniques and concerns of the traditional social novel — especially the question of the nature and function of domestic power — to the self-consciousness that modernism demanded, without giving in to the temptations of either formalist machismo or realist belligerence.

Mansfield believes, however, that because Harrower’s novel combined “Realist” issues with more “Modern” responses, it confounded critics of the time:

Harrower’s novel not only rejected the quest for essential truth that had such poignancy for writers and readers of fiction in Australia at this time, but also confounded the binary opposition on which much criticism rested. For these reasons, even when it was positive, the critical reception of this novel was tentative, and soon ended in uncertainty and silence.

A case of critics trying to make the work fit the theory, rather than look at the work on its own terms? Anyhow, it probably didn’t help, as he also implies, that Harrower was a woman writing about women’s experience.

Interestingly, I also found an article (from Studies in Classic Australian fiction) that outlined why Patrick White’s works, which can look like “traditional, bulky, realist fiction”, are modernist. The writer, Michael Wilding, however, also admits that White “is playing with the realist tradition”, that he “gestures at realism” which he then denies or inverts. Voss, of course, is an excellent example of this, but Wilding discusses several White novels to support his argument.

I like Wilding’s definition of realism, as:

a committed left-wing realist mode: democratic in its sympathies, egalitarian in its perceptions, naturalistic in its causality and motivation, precise and laconic in its verbal manner.

However, while naming Katharine Susannah Prichard and Vance Palmer as purveyors of this style, he also includes Christina Stead! Just shows the limits of theory?

The question is …

Jane Rawson, A wrong turn at the office of unmade lists

Does all this mean anything? Well, not to our individual reading experiences I think. But, if we believe the arts are (partly) about reflecting and/or responding to our times, then these “trends” mirror what was happening. Social realism recognised a growing concern with the inequalities and oppression wrought on people by increasing industrialisation under capitalism, while modernism reflected a sense of alienation and meaninglessness that the times (progress, industrialisation, war, technology, urbanisation) were effecting in people. In current times, we are seeing, for example, a rise of “cli-fi” and climate-related dystopian literature in response to you-know-what. Literature, in other words, tells us about ourselves and these theories are a way of articulating that.

Anyhow, back to Bill. It will be interesting to consider how these traditions “behave” as we move into Bill’s Gen 4 next year. Meanwhile, I’ll just say that both these “isms” appeal to me. I love the reformist heart behind realist novels, but there’s also that part of me that relates to the modernist’s sense of alienation in an uncomprehending and incomprehensible world. I didn’t fall in love with TS Eliot in my youth for nothing!

Bill curates: Monday musings on Australian literature: The future of Australian literature

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit. During the latter part of January we will look at some of Sue’s older posts which have relevance to my Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week, Part II,17-23 Jan, 2021

Gen 3 covers the period from the end of WWI to the end of the 1950s, so first up I’ve chosen a Monday Musings from 22 Nov 2010 on Vance Palmer’s thoughts, in 1935, on the Future of Australian Literature. Doubly relevant as I began Gen 2 with a review of Palmer’s Legend of the Nineties. 


My original post titled: “Monday musings on Australian literature: The future of Australian literature”

‘If their [Australian writers’] work is so interesting,’ comes the query, ‘why isn’t it known here [London]?’

This query was put to Australian novelist and literary figure, Vance Palmer, in 1935! When I read it, I couldn’t help thinking plus ça change. A few months ago I wrote on Hilary McPhee‘s concern about the continued low profile of Australian literature overseas. She said that, while the situation has improved since the 1980s when she first wrote on the issue, it is uneven because Australian writers are “cherry-picked”. In other words, Tim Winton, Peter Carey and maybe David Malouf are known, but who else?

Anyhow, back to Palmer and 1935. His response to the question was

No use to reply that it [Australian writers’ work] is hardly known on their native heath!

That was probably so … and during the 193os and 1940s, Vance and his wife Nettie Palmer, along with writers like Flora EldershawMarjorie Barnard and Frank Dalby Davison worked hard to raise awareness in Australia of Australian literature, and to secure good funding support for writers. The Palmers personally mentored writers like Eldershaw, Barnard and Davison. Nettie Palmer, in particular, corresponded regularly with writers, advising and encouraging them. Vance Palmer wrote for newspapers and journals, and lectured widely, on Australian literature.

Why do we need a national literature?

In the article “The future of Australian literature”, Palmer discusses why it’s important to have a national literature. He asks, “Why all this fuss about having a literature of our own? Why waste time writing books when ‘all the best and the latest’ can be imported from overseas?” His answer is not surprising to we readers:

The answer, of course, is that books which are revelations of our own life can’t be imported, and that they are necessary to our full growth. … since the world is divided into nations and societies, it is necessary that these shall find their own forms of expression, each subtly different from the others.

… we have to discover ourselves – our character, the character of the country, the particular kind of society that has developed here – and this can only be done through the searching explorations of literature. It is one of the limitations of the human mind that it can never grasp things fully till they are presented through the medium of art. The ordinary world is a chaos, a kaleidoscope, full of swift, meaningless impressions that efface one another; the world of a well-pondered novel or drama is designed as an orderly microcosm where people and things are shown their true significance. And so, unless a country has its life fully mirrored in books it will not show a very rich intelligence in the business of living.

He goes on to suggest that through literature, we

  • learn to understand and adjust to our surroundings or landscape (the physical, I suppose). In Australia at that time this meant learning “to live with our bonny earth with a spirit of affection. It is not the same haggard landscape our ancestors looked on with loathing” but has its own beauty in its, for example, wattle and gums.
  • discover our roots, find out who we are (what he calls, the social). In Australia at that time, that included exploring themes of exile and immigration, “the theme of the vanishing race, with its wild charm and its tragic doom”, and themes related to Australia-at-war and coping with universal economic conditions.
Katharine Susannah Prichard
Katharine Susannah Prichard (1927/8) (Courtesy: State Library of New South Wales [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

He argues that change was occurring, that a national literature was developing – and gave many examples including works by those mentioned above, as well as writers like Katharine Susannah Prichard and Christina Stead.  He suggests that one of the reasons for improvement was the growth of publishing in Australia. What these publishers produce might be uneven in quantity and literary value, he said, “but at least they have taken the Australian background for granted, and that has marked an advance”. However, he bemoans the lack of “lively and intelligent [literary] criticism” which he believes is essential to writers finding “their proper audience”.

Palmer concludes positively, believing that there has been “a bubbling in our drought-scaled springs”. He says that the new literary pulse will have a significant impact on Australia in the next 50 years and will “quicken its imagination, stimulate its powers of introspection, and make it as interesting to itself as every country should be”.

There’s a lot to think about here – in terms of how Australian literature has progressed (within and without the country) and how we see the role of national literatures in our more globalised world. How important is national literature? My answer is that while nationalism, taken to exclusionist extremes, can be rather scary, we still do need to understand our own little corners of the world, in both their local, unique and their wider, universal meanings and implications.

What do you think? And how important is it, particularly with so many writers on the move, to define nationality?

Vance Palmer
“The future of Australian literature”
First published in The Age, February 9, 1935
Availability: Online


When we finished the Bill Curates series a few months ago, Bill and I discussed reviving it occasionally, and thought one such occasion might be his AWW Gen 3 Week. So, here we are again. Bill has chosen three for us to post for his Week, with this one seeming the best one to go live on Day 1. We’d love you to join us in the project!

Meanwhile, we would love to hear your thoughts – and, particularly, whether you have ever read any Vance Palmer.

Angela Thirkell, Trooper to the Southern Cross (#BookReview)

Book coverUnlike many, I think, I have not read Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels which, I understand are very different to her only Australian-set novel, Trooper to the Southern Cross, which, in fact, she published under the male pseudonym of Leslie Parker. It has been on my TBR for some time, so I’m grateful that Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Week provided the impetus for me to finally pull it off the shelves and read it.

That said, Angela Thirkell is a bit of a ring-in. Wikipedia describes her as an Australian and English novelist, but really, she, who lived from 1890 to 1961, only lived in Australia from 1920 to 1929. All her novels were published after her return to England, so, although she did some journalistic writing in Australia, it’s a bit of a stretch to call her an “Australian” novelist. Nonetheless, I’d argue that this book, which has an Australian protagonistwas and was published in 1934, is worthy of Bill’s week, and the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Before I get on with the book, I should tell you that Thirkell’s father was William Morris’ good friend and biographer, and her maternal grandfather was Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. She had Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin as cousins, JM Barrie as godfather, and Beatrix Potter as a neighbour. She moved, then, in interesting circles.

Hilarious and affectionate satire

GoodReads writes that in Trooper to the Southern Cross, Thirkell “assumes the voice of an Australian army officer and relates an amusing, rough-and-tumble sea story about an eventful, post-World War I journey on a troop-carrying vessel deservedly labeled a ‘hell-ship.’ Thirkell’s keen ear for dialogue, and her skillful use of her own first-hand experience of a voyage on a similarly rumbustious vessel, combine to create an amusing and spirited yarn.” This is a fair description, but Virago’s back cover does a better job, describing it as “an hilarious and affectionate satire on the manners and mores of Australia”, “satire” being the operative word.

I make this point because, as Bill will be interested to know, HM Green, in his History of Australian literature, believed, says Virago, this book was written by a male, and described it as an example of “unconscious humour” rather than as satire. It’s an easy mistake to make, particularly if you don’t know the full story. At this point, of course, I had to check out Trove, where I found two contemporary reviews. One, from Sydney’s The Sun (18 November 1934), is scathing, describing it as “without literary merit, with just a touch of sardonic humor and a good deal of unrestrained nastiness”. The main complaint is that the book “portrays the Australian soldier as something between a savage and a simpleton”.

The other review, from The Sydney Morning Herald (29 September 1934), is a little more positive. It has its criticism, though, saying that the “language and outlook” of its army doctor narrator “is that of the common soldier and rather difficult to reconcile with his rank and the assumption that he is a graduate in medicine of an Australian university. Our Medical Faculties hardly turn out their diamonds quite as rough as this unpolished specimen.” However, this reviewer finds the book funny, and concludes:

The voyage was full of incident, and the episodes, tragic, thrilling, or amusing, lose none of their interest in the free manner of telling. From the major’s mouth came artless revelations of opinions on all subjects that are reminiscent of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” though the artlessness has not the subtlety of the art of Anita Loos. Diggers will chuckle over this book.

Hmmm … not The Sun’s diggers, perhaps.

“a reserved kind of chap”

Trooper to the Southern Cross is based on Thirkell’s own trip to Australia in 1920 on the requisitioned German troopship SS Friedrichsruh which, like the novel’s fictional Rudolstadt, had been ingeniously sabotaged by the Germans. For example, the toilets flushed boiling water and salt water flowed from freshwater taps. Not surprisingly this added to the havoc on a ship that was carrying officers with their wives and families, “ordinary” diggers, and prisoner diggers who soon had it over the soldiers guarding them. As Thirkell tells it in her novel, there was much violence on board and at the only two stops made en route, Port Said and Colombo. All this is told in the voice of Major Tom Bowen, who is modelled on Thirkell’s husband, albeit her husband wasn’t a doctor or a major. Bowen’s wife, Celia, however, is not based on herself, says Tony Gould in Virago’s introduction, but Mrs Jerry, the Colonel’s wife, is.

The novel is interesting to read for a number of reasons, one being simply for its history, its being, according to its publisher, the first book to deal with “the repatriation of Australian troops after the war.” A very particular repatriation one would hope, but a story of such nonetheless. Mostly, though, it’s interesting for the voice of its narrator. He is quite something, and I can imagine different readers responding very differently to him. He, like George Thirkell, served in the war from the Gallipoli Campaign right through to Armistice. He’s reasonably educated, having done medicine in Sydney, but he uses Australian vernacular and his cultural tastes are popular. Virago’s Gould notes that Thirkell “became extremely well versed in Australian literature and culture and uses it to comic effect” in the book. Here, for example, is Bowen soon after meeting “the wonderfully pretty little thing” who was to become his wife:

The girl didn’t know what back-blocks were, so I had to explain that they were way out beyond everything. I asked her if she’d read ‘On Our Selection’, because that gives you some idea of the back-blocks. But she hadn’t. And she hadn’t read ‘We  of the Never Never’, nor ‘While the Billy Boils’, so I knew she wasn’t literary.

You can imagine the female Thirkell enjoying writing this male character – and she does it so well. He makes you cringe – with his frequently smug patronising manner, sexism, racism, and general all round chauvinism – and yet you can’t help liking him too. He has nous dealing with men, particularly the diggers for whom he has a clear-eyed affection; he is resourceful; and he shows tenderness to others in need, regardless of who they are. He’s even open to having his mind changed, such as when the Roman Catholic padre helps him out:

To think of an R.C. showing me what Christianity really was. It gave quite a shock to a lot of my ideas.

As a document of 1920s Australian manners and culture, told with a lightly satiric eye, Trooper to the Southern Cross is a surprisingly entertaining read.

Challenge logoAngela Thirkell
Trooper to the Southern Cross
London: Virago, 1985 (Orig. pub. 1934)
(Virago Modern Classic No. 171)
ISBN: 0860685926

Monday musings on Australian literature: Christina Stead’s 1930s, Beauties and Bankers

Today’s Monday Musings post is the second of two on Christina Stead that I promised for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) AWW Gen 3 Week. These two posts – last week’s and this – focus on contemporary Australian responses to her four 1930s-published books, based primarily on my research of Trove.

Last week’s post looked at The Salzburg tales (1934) and Seven poor men of Sydney (1934), so this week The beauties and the furies (1936) and House of all nations (1938) get their turn. Although I’ve only read For love alone, plus some short stories of hers, I know many of her books, including last week’s two. However, this week’s books are less familiar to me.

Book cover

The beauties and the furies was not one of Stead’s most successful books, it has to be said, and I had to dig a bit deeper in Trove to find reviews. It’s the story of a woman who, married to a boring man, runs off to Paris to be with her student lover. The reviews were not kind, mostly for the writing than the content.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s reviewer (22 May 1936) writes that her “definite tendency to develop an artificial style” appeared in her second book, but suggests that

That “visionary imagination,” for which she has been commended, runs away with reality altogether in “The Beauties and Furies” at times.

S/he then quotes from the book, and, I must say that out of context at least it is a little over-the-top, but the review isn’t all bad, saying that despite these passages and “a leaning towards redundancy”, Stead has “a definite flair for delineation of character and a good sense of dialogue and situation”. The book is, however, “too long”, presumable because of the redundancy.

Book coverThe Mail’s review (30 May 1936) is similarly critical, and is titled, in fact, “Not recommended”. This reviewer attacks both the writing and the content, describing the story as

merely a sordid one, not of a beautiful comradeship, but of an illicit love affair between two people, whose ideals are about as spiritual as those of a pair of monkeys.

S/he ends the review with the parenthetical comment “(Censors please note)”. However, even so, this reviewer does see skill, saying “she can write vigorously, yet with simplicity and charm”.

The Australian Women’s Weekly (20 June 1936) joined the chorus:

A good story spoilt by a maddening cascade of words to water the purple patches of the plot. Of course, some of them have their uses. “Endoped dome of misery” might be applied to the reader’s head after ploughing through some of these passages. It seems a pity, for the book might have been a good one had the author stuck to her undoubted gift for descriptive phrases only as the means of telling her story.

The best “review” comes from Melbourne’s The Herald (18 June 1946) which quotes America’s New Yorker critic, Clifton Fadiman, who sees more to admire than criticise:

again declares that Christina Stead, the Sydney woman who wrote “The Salzburg Tales,” “Seven Poor Men of Sydney,” and “The Beauties and Furies,” is “a simon-pure genius, showing not a trace of workaday talent.” “I say this,” he temperately adds, “knowing that ‘The Salzburg Tales’ had its excesses and that ‘Seven Poor Men of Sydney’ was no less flawed … ‘The Beauties and Furies’ though her finest book to date, is also imperfect. Yet it discloses such streaming imagination, such tireless wit, such intellectual virtuosity, that I cannot see how anyone who reads it carefully— and there is no other way to read it — can deny Miss Stead’s position as the most extraordinary woman novelist produced by the English-speaking race since Virginia Woolf. . . . The style is indescribable, the wit hardly suggestible.”

Book coverHouse of all nations (1938), which satirises bankers and financiers, garnered far more positive reviews overall. Edgar Holt in The Herald (9 July 1938) starts with

That I was not very familiar with her work before is an appropriate commentary upon the indifference of most of us to our Australian novelists. “House of All Nations” is a brilliant and exhilarating book, a superb performance of sustained wit, a crushing satire on the world of international finance.

Holt shares many quotes to show the quality of her writing, saying Stead “revels in words. They spurt from her pen, fountain-like”. He does have some criticism but, like Fadiman, is impressed, concluding that

The scope of this book is almost too ambitious; but instead of failing in an exceptionally difficult undertaking, she has written a novel which will command universal admiration.

We should be very proud to include her in the forefront of Australian novelists.

Like Holt, who described the book as a “mosaic”, Adam McCay, in Sydney’s The Sun (10 July 1938) also discusses the novel’s construction:

According to current literary jargon, “House of All Nations” might be called a cavalcade, or a pageant: but its plan is too well-made, not accidental enough, to let it be named a kaleidoscope. Looking for a word, we might say that it is a symphony, with privateering international finance as leitmotiv, and it is written wholly in scherzo movements.

McCay is fulsome in his praise, saying, among other things, that:

In her perception of financial intrigue, as well as in her naked studies of fraud, gluttony, perversion, avarice, and adultery, Miss Stead has eyes as ruthless as a studio light. It is a rare woman who can furnish scepticism and satire as unabashed as Voltaire’s.

I will just note here, in passing, the sexism in some of the commentary. It was the 1930s.

The writer in Brisbane’s The Telegraph (14 July 1938) starts by sharing the qualified assessment made by that American supporter of Australian literature, C Hartley Grattan, then goes on to quote English critic Ricard Church who said that:

Such variety of character, presented with so original and vivid a style, makes this book quite outstanding. And as for the author’s mastery of the details of the international money-market; well, that is worthy of Zola.

So far, then, Stead has been compared favourably with Virginia Woolf, Voltaire and Zola. The aforementioned Adam McCay writes in another article that while one English reviewer sees her as “the most important woman novelist in English since Virginia Woolf”, he’d “go back past Mrs. Woolf to George Eliot”.

One-time Stead friend and supporter, the Australian journalist Florence James, wrote various articles about Stead’s career during the 1930s. In The Sydney Morning Herald (22 September 1938) she noted that

at last Australia is waking up to realise that in London and New York this young Australian is considered by many famous critics to be the most important woman writing in the English language to-day.

There were, of course, naysayers who did not like Stead’s exuberant, untamed style, but we can put that down, in part at least, to the fact that her modernist style was new and innovative. Not everyone likes innovation.

Note: You can find bloggers’ reviews of various Stead works at Lisa’s ANZLitLovers Christina Stead page.

Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland, The drums go bang! (#BookReview)

Book coverVolume 1 of Ruth Park’s autobiography, A fence around the cuckoo, covers the period of her life up to when she lands in Australia to marry D’Arcy Niland. Not being sure, perhaps, that there’d be a sequel, Park concludes with:

We lived together for twenty-five years less five weeks. We had many fiery disagreements but no quarrels, a great deal of shared and companionable literary work, and much love and constancy. Most of all I like to remember laughter.

That autobiography was published in 1992. The drums go bang, written collaboratively by Park and Niland, was published in 1956 and covers the first five or so of these years to just after the publication in 1947 of The harp in the south.

The first thing that struck me was its point of view: it slips astonishingly between third person and first person plural, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph. And then the penny dropped, its collaborative nature. When they are talking about one of them, Tiger (Ruth’s nickname) or Evans (D’Arcy’s), third person is used, but when they are talking about them together, first person plural is used. Here is an example about their delayed honeymoon:

We didn’t mind the delay. Tiger was crazy to see Sydney, and besides she wasn’t too keen on going away to the Blue Mountains with a strange man. While Evans was away at the Railway she went around the city on her own …

Once you work out what’s going on, it works very well. However, to understand this particular paragraph, and the “strange man” comment you’ll need to read their story for yourself, as I want to move on to other things. Suffice it to say that this comment, while containing an element of truth, given the way their relationship developed, is also an example of their light, self-deprecating humour. As Park said in her autobiography, “most of all I like to remember laughter”.

The drums go bang is a short and often funny book, but it manages to cover a lot, including their struggles to find accommodation in 1940s Sydney when accommodation was scarce, their decision to go freelance and the resultant struggle to survive, their work in the outback, two pregnancies, their lives in Surry Hills and other Sydney suburbs, and their relationships with a wonderful cast of characters. The aspects which interested me most were of course Surry Hills, because it inspired The harp in the south, the writing life, and the writing itself, which provides such an insight into their skills.

Although they tell it with such humour, Park and Niland are very clear about how difficult the freelance life is. For most of the five years covered by the book they live a hand-to-mouth existence, experiencing poverty at close hand. However, there’s also good advice here for would-be writers. For example, early in the book, Tiger expresses frustration at Evans’s belief that a good story will sell regardless, but even this is told with humour:

He was convinced that if the story were good it must sell. He bailed up an amiable Salvation Army major and tried to persuade him that “The Other Side of Love” was just what was needed for the War Cry. He submitted “The Menace of Money” to the Business Man’s Monthly, and a sentimental animal story to the house magazine at the Abattoirs.

They share their Minor Carta, their manifesto for writers who wish to make a living writing. Its eight articles include some hard learnt truths, such as that you have to “write anything and everything”, you cannot afford to be “snobbish” about your art, and you can’t let rejection slips get you down. They talk about the variability of payment systems for freelance work, unscrupulous writing schools, and the importance of marketing, of needing to “shape it to fit”. They write articles, songs, short stories, radio plays, children’s radio, comedy sketches, and more – anything that might bring in a cheque (and they do it sharing one old typewriter.)

I’d love to share more about their lives, and particularly the characters in it, like Evans’ brother Young Gus, the generous freelance publisher Mr Virtue, and colourful relations like Aunt Nibblestones and Uncle Looshus, but I want to get onto something that is most relevant to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Week, their time in Surry Hills and how it inspired The harp in the south. Initially scared by “the place, with its brawling, shrieking life”, abusive drunks and fighting prostitutes, Park started to adapt, and

… began to study the people for what they were, and not what they did. Their true kindness, their generosity and charity filled her with shame. They were so much more genuinely loveable than she had given them credit for being, and she began to understand how the incredible congestion of their lives, the rabbit-warren houses, the inescapable dirt of an area which is built around the big factory chimneys all contributed to their innately lawless, conventionless attitude towards life. She began to understand that in such a place dirt ceases to become important, morals are often impracticable, and privacy is an impossibility.

As it turned out, though, The harp in the south was written, almost, you could say, accidentally. In New Zealand for some needed R&R after the birth of their second child, they are sent a clipping by Uncle Looshus which announces a Sydney Morning Herald competition for a novel, short story and poem. Park tries to convince Niland to write a novel but he refuses, saying he only writes short stories, and tells her to have a go. So, she does, and of course Surry Hills is her inspiration:

… she felt she understood them. She certainly liked them, mostly because in the midst of all their dirt and poverty and fecklessness they contrived to be happy.

She wrote down a sentence that seemed to sum up their philosophy: “I was thinking of how lucky we are”.

That sentence, the last line in the book, was the key that opened the door. From then on the story grew by itself.

This book, published serially in 1947 to both acclaim and vituperation, has become a classic of Australian social realism, albeit, as Paul Genoni says, “tempered with romanticism”. The same could be said of this delightful memoir.

Challenge logoRuth Park and D’Arcy Niland
The drums go bang!
Illustrated by Phil Taylor
Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1956
ISBN: None

Monday musings on Australian literature: Christina Stead’s 1930s, Salzburg and Sydney

My first Monday musings on Christina Stead (my posts on Stead) was barely introductory, so I’m planning two more to coincide with Bill’s (The Australian Legend) AWW Gen 3 Week. These two posts – this week’s and next – focus contemporary Australian responses to the four books she published in the 1930s. I’m keeping this focus tight because Stead is such a complex figure in Australian literary history, and so much has been written about her already, including Hazel Rowley’s well-regarded biography. (See Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers). However, I enjoyed reading, in Trove of course, what some contemporary Aussies had to say about her, and wanted to share them.

To start though, a very brief bio relevant to this period. Stead, born in Sydney in 1902, went overseas, to England initially, in 1928. She then lived, and worked in a bank, in Paris from 1930 to 1935, before spending time in the USA, Spain and England with her husband-to-be William Blake (Wilhelm Blech). In 1937, they moved to the USA. She didn’t return to Australia to live until 1968. Her first four books were published in the 1930s: The Salzburg tales (1934), Seven poor men of Sydney (1934), The beauties and the furies (1936), and House of all nations (1938).

Although over the years Stead experienced a mixed reaction from Australia, some critics denouncing her as “expatriate”, it’s clear that in the 1930s, at least, she was well-admired by Australian newspaper reviewers. It’s also clear that she was seen as both a modernist and a realist, with no nods to our bush and pioneer traditions.

Book coverThe Salzburg tales was her first published book and it immediately received positive attention from Australian newspaper reviewers. I was tickled by the writer in Melbourne’s Argus who wrote that “Many times it has been said that there is no particular demand for writers’ collections of short stories but there are authors and publishers who continue to issue books of the kind and apparently the stories find readers.” Plus ça change, it seems.

Reviews of this book noted its inventiveness and original style. For example, S.E.N., wrote in the Daily Mail on 4 April 1934, that

her book is remarkable not only for its inventiveness, but for its original style. It commingles modernism and mysticism, realism and romanticism, the dramatic and the uneventful, love, law, life, laughter, and letters in an olla podrida which is both attractive and unusual. Some of the stories are, like that of the Wanton, a little too highly spiced here and there for the less sophisticated reader; but on the whole Miss Stead has given us a collection of tales which are admirably told and admirably contrasted.

There we have it – “modernism” and “realism” – two styles/approaches that were significant the 1930s literature, and of which Stead was a major exponent. The unnamed reviewer in the Sydney Morning Herald (3 May 1934) remarked that “Miss Stead … really seems to belong in a class by herself”. This reviewer praises the variety, and concludes that “there seems no end to Miss Stead’s inventiveness and no limit to her powers of expression”. Jean Williamson, writing in the Australian Women’s Weekly (7 July 1934), is no less admiring, calling it “extraordinary in its concept, its vocabulary, its technique and its imagery.”

The reviewer in the Townsville Daily Bulletin (7 August 1934) states:

This author is, I understand, an Australian, who now lives in Paris. How long she has been there I do not know but she has accumulated experience, impressions, fed her imagination in a way that would not be possible for an author writing from this side of the world. It is not only that Miss Stead has set her scenes in such a town as Salzburg, and peopled her many pages with remarkable people. Most authors could have done that, but her story is saturated with her personality, lit up humor, knowledge, penetration, and is decidedly original.

This is an interesting comment in the context of Drusilla Modjeska’s book Exiles at home (posted on by Bill). Modjeska’s book is about “the ones who stayed” in Australia … tackling … how to live and work in this country as women and as writers and how to build a culture that has its roots in Australian histories and conditions, rather than in a foreign past” (from Introduction to Reprinted Editions.) Of course, the thing about Stead is that she too forged a contemporary literature, some of it set in or drawn from her Australian experience … which brings me to …

Christina Stead, Seven Poor Men of SydneyStead’s second book, Seven poor men of Sydney, which garnered similarly positive reviews. However, the reviewer in The Newcastle Sun (22 November 1934) makes no bones about its grittiness. It has no “Australian local color of the wattle blossom and stockwhip kind”. S/he describes it as high art, and says “it gives evidence of intuition, of skill in handling of character and of words and of high achievement in the depicting of realities.” For this writer, though, there is such a thing as being too modern, too real:

And while no one can reasonably suggest that a writer should ignore the gutter, it is not necessary to bring in the language of the gutter. It is, indeed, a great pity that a writer who shows abundantly that she is capable of far better things, should think it necessary to be “modern” in this particular way.

I know some readers who still feel this today … Anyhow, interestingly, Bookman writing in the Courier Mail (30 November 1934) has an opposing criticism, saying that “perhaps” the novel’s “weakest point” is that “the characters all talk too learnedly”! However, he too recognises the novel’s “stark realism”. He calls it “a remarkable book; the kind of book to which the word ‘powerful’ is sometimes applied”, but he also clearly fears its politics:

She has revealed the mentality out of which revolutions are made. That lesson is especially important in these days when thousands of lads, with more education than judgment, are being thrown into desperation and into the arms of extreme propagandists because all they can see ahead is blind-alley employment or no employment at all. In such conditions communism flourishes, and Miss Stead doubtless saw it thriving in Central Europe.

The aforementioned Jean Williamson, writing again in the Australian Women’s Weekly (9 March 1935) reports Stead’s own comments on the book.

The Seven Poor Men of Sydney is not so much a novel, I suppose, as a cast of characters battling through daily life, as much passion being expended or the small accidents of daily life as on any one of the great tragic themes; in fact the great tragic themes are all melted down and infused there. That was my feeling in writing the Seven Poor Men.”

Stead, a deeply committed socialist, also says that the novel shows she hasn’t forgotten Australia, nor “the importance of the Labor Movement in everyone’s daily life”.

So, two very different books, both written in a modernist style, both hailed for their inventiveness and her “phrasemaking” – and, put together, neatly reflecting her seemingly dichotomous existence.

Note: You can find bloggers’ reviews of various Stead works at Lisa’s ANZLitLovers Christina Stead page.