Louise Mack, Girls together (#BookReview)

Louise Mack, Girls togetherWell, 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.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeLouise Mack
Girls together
London: The Pilgrim Press [n.d]
[first pub. 1898]
220pp.

Delicious descriptions: Louise Mack’s dialogue and satire

Over Christmas, during one of my conversations with Son Gums, he commented how he tires of meaningless conversations, conversations, for example, in which people discuss a television series they’ve seen but say nothing of note. He mimicked the sort of conversation he meant … well, imagine my surprise when, in one of those surprising synchronicities, I came across exactly that sort of conversation a few days later in Louise Mack’s The world is round (my review). Here is part of it – the two speakers are at a social gathering, and published author Musgrave is eavesdropping:

It was the girl who pushed the ball this time. ‘Have you ever read a book called Lost in the Zodiac?’
‘No, never read it. Who’s it bai?’
‘I don’t know. I never look who a book’s by. Do you?’
‘No. Tell you an awfully naice book. Read it on board coming out, Miss Nobody of Nowhere.’
‘I haven’t read it. Is it good?’
‘Very good. Very er–er–interestin’.’
‘Is it? I must get to that. Do you know who it’s by?’
‘One of those French fellows, I think. Sounds like  a Frenchman. One of those detective plots, you know.’
‘Oh yes, I know. Like that book everyone was reading the other day, I forget the name of it.’
‘Yes. Sort of detective yarn you know. Very good.’
‘There’s a book called A Painted Polyanthus’ – Musgrave gave a sigh for a man he knew who would have revelled in this with a joy as keen as his own. ‘They say it’s very good. I haven’t read it yet.’
‘Neither have I.’
Musgrave was disappointed.
‘Have you read Speech in Passing?’
‘Oh yes, I read that. I cried over it.’
‘No? Did you? Bai Jove!’ leering sentimentally.
‘Yes, I couldn’t help it.’
‘The “sulky man” – he was a rum cove, wasn’t he? He was funny wasn’t he.’
‘I don’t think he was a sulky man at all.’
‘Neither do I. The only called him that,’ boldly.
Her voice changed.
‘”And Ida died,”‘ she quoted, in tones that suggested to you that she was just going to burst into tears.
Musgrave turned his head to see how she was looking. Just as he thought. Her head was a little on one side, her eyes were staring sadly straight back in front of her, and her mouth was doing its best to look pensive and full of feeling.
‘”And Ida died,”‘ she said again.
That was evidently the one point about the story that had struck her most impressively. Unfortunately hers was not the face to express the feeling she would fain have conveyed …

You can see why those early critics praised her dialogue and satire, can’t you? It’s quite delicious.

Note: The strange spellings, like “bai”, are attempts to phonetically capture the Australian accent – and is clearly being satirised.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Louise Mack

I promised in my Reading Highlights post that my first review of the year would be for a book from my TBR pile, and so it will be – hopefully in a couple of days. However, I suspect that the book, and maybe even the author, will be unknown to most of my readers here so I’ve decided to use my first Monday Musings of the year to introduce the author, Louise Mack.

Louise Mack, 1890s

Louise Mack, by Kerry & Co, 1890s (Photo:
National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23474744, via ADB)

I’ve had Mack’s first novel, The world is round, on my TBR since the mid 1990s when I found it on a remainder table. It had been published under Imprint Classics by Angus & Robertson in 1993, and although it’s only 93 pages, I somehow didn’t read it then, and kept not reading it – until now. But, more on it later this week.

Louise Mack was born in Tasmania in 1870, the seventh child and first daughter of a family which ended up numbering 13! Her father was a Wesleyan minister, and they moved around, ending up in Sydney by the time Mack was in high school. She went to Sydney Girls’ High where she met and became friendly with Ethel Turner (who was also born in 1870). I wrote in my post on Ethel Turner’s juvenilia that Ethel and her sister, Lilian, established a magazine Iris when the school’s newspaper, Gazette, which was edited by Louise Mack, rejected Ethel’s contributions! However, I understand that they were very good friends and, in fact, Turner apparently met her husband at the Mack family home.

Australian author Nancy Phelan, who was Mack’s niece, wrote the entry about her in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), and also the introduction to the novel I’ve read. I don’t want to reiterate what you can read in the ADB, but here’s a potted history. After school she worked as a governess before being becoming “a regular contributor to the Bulletin in the late 1880s”, with the encouragement of owner-editor J. F. Archibald and editor A. G. Stephens. Phelan suggests that Mack perhaps received too much attention and praise, implying that it impacted the development of her talent. She married, but it failed and she went to England, around 1900, where she wrote novels and serials, travelled, and worked as a journalist, including as a war correspondent. She returned to Australia in 1915 and became a touring speaker or lecturer, something she did right through to the 1930s. During this time back in Australis, she wrote more novels and married a second time (more happily), before dying in 1935, “possessionless”.

“little lady”

They’re the dry facts. She was quite a colourful character, with Phelan describing her as “fair, pretty, extroverted, audacious, unpredictable, a genuine Bohemian who chose a life of adventure and insecurity”. Phelan writes in my novel’s introduction that Mack “grew up in a series of large, shabby, untidy parsonages, with no luxuries but plenty of books … books, as necessary as bread, were constantly discussed”. I found an article in Trove which announces her as a rising literary star. It suggests that:

Miss Mack owes much of her development to her mother’s literary tastes, and the varied training that an intellectual father can bestow on his children. (The Methodist, 23 Nov 1895)

My Trove search retrieved pages and pages of hits on her name, many of them from newspapers all around Australia – from Dubbo to Perth – announcing her lecture tour on her war experience, which included experiencing German occupation and bombardment in Belgium and going behind German lines. In her mid to late 40s at the time of the tour, she is, patronisingly to our modern ears, described in these announcements/reports, as “this charming little lady” or “the pretty and charming little lady”. This is the woman who, one of these articles says, was asked by Scotland Yard to report on a meeting of spies with Germans in Antwerp to which she’d been an eye-witness. This article’s writer also calls her a “little lady” but a bit later describes her more appropriately as “this daring and travelled lady”. S/he reports on an interview with Mack:

“I just love lecturing,” Miss Mack said; “it is the most fascinating work I have ever taken up. Indeed, I may say that I just live for the moment when 8 o’clock strikes, and I and my pictures begin to tell the story of a Woman’s Experience in the Greatest War this world has ever known.” (Western Mail, 17 September 1915)

Mack, you see, went the whole hog and illustrated her talks with moving pictures. Reports suggest that she was an excellent and engaging speaker. Some of these talks were given under the auspices of, and raised money for, the Red Cross. Her book, A woman’s experiences in the Great War, was published in 1915

I’m not going to discuss her writing in any detail here, because I’ll do that in my review post. Instead I’ll share a couple of columns that she wrote in the 1930s in the Australian Womens Weekly, for whom I’m guessing she must have been a columnist. These columns –  Louise Mack’s Diary and Louise Mack Advises – provide some insight into her values and sense of humour.

In a Diary column I found this on Mrs Bradfield, wife of Australian engineer and designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, John Bradfield:

I’VE always been wondering what would happen if Dr. Bradfield got his title, and dear Mrs. Bradfield became Lady Bradfield, and somehow, between myself and my diary, I must confess I’m glad that Mrs. Bradfield is still there. Dozens of times coming back from hospital, getting out of the train at Gordon, I would find my suitcase seized, or my parcels grabbed, and there’d be Mrs. Bradfield trotting along besides me, coming out of her way so that she could help carry someone’s burdens.

Could Lady Bradfield have done that? Ah, yes! Title or no title, this little simple, pale, absolutely natural woman, all kindness, with a quite remarkable craze for carrying other people’s parcels, would always have been Mrs. Bradfield. That’s her real title, her many friends think.

I like her focus on kindness, on the unimportance of “titles”, and her light humorous touch.

And, one of the advice columns. It’s called “The gentle art of giving” and asks “Do you give? Or Do you grab? The commonest way of giving is to give what you can spare. But that’s not giving at all, ethically speaking”. Fascinating. It made me think of Australian ethicist Peter Singer and his views on giving. However, let’s not get sidetracked by that now. Mack goes on to suggest that giving is good for your looks! She suggests getting on a tram and looking around:

Can’t you tell at a glance who hoards and who gives? It is written on their faces. It is graven around their lips. It is mirrored in their eyes, giving, or grabbing. The face that gives has a better complexion because the blood flows happily through capillaries kept open by the light-heartedness of generous doings. The face that gives has brighter eyes and sweeter lips. Oh, particularly about the lips does the will to give reveal itself in its full beauty.

She then gives examples of women who give and don’t give, ending with Myrtle who has almost no food left, when in comes her brother. Mack writes:

And there before my eyes took place a metamorphosis. Ovid wasn’t in it. One moment Myrtle was a grey woman with a quarter of a loaf of bread and a cold chop, and now she turned into a gracious creature, all wealth and possessions, that she was handing away to Tom. She whisked a bit of tea into one parcel, a quarter loaf into another, two potatoes and an onion into another, a cold chop out of her safe, two apples for the children, then pressed threepence into poor old Tom’s hand, with, “It’s pouring; take a tram.”

That was giving, indeed.

Giving is when you press your thumb down, down on the indicator of your heart—and, pressing still, and yet again pressing, send your will to give up, up, up, to the very highest storey of your soul.

Louise Mack sounds like a woman worth knowing … and yet is, I believe, unknown to most Australians. Such is life!