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.

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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)

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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: Mollie Skinner and DH Lawrence

I promised this post in yesterday’s review of Mollie Skinner’s short story, “The hand”, but have since been reminded that Bill (The Australian Legend) has already written about Skinner’s relationship with Lawrence. I’ve decided to continue with my plan, not only because it interests me, but because I hope to add to the discussion.

DH Lawrence, ML Skinner, The boy in the bush

First US edition, Thomas Seltzer, 1924

So, I suggest that you read Bill’s post (linked above), because I plan to avoid repeating what he’s said. However, you do need a little groundwork, and it is this. In 1922 Mollie Skinner was running a guest-house and nursing-home in Darlington, Western Australia, to which the newly arrived DH Lawrence, and his wife Frieda, had gone to stay. The end result of this meeting was the co-written novel, The boy in the bush. (You can read Bill’s review of this, too, on his blog.)

To avoid repeating Bill’s information which uses Paul Eggert’s introduction in the novel’s 1990 edition, I am drawing from – yes, you guessed it – my newspaper research in Trove, where I found some more contemporary commentary to complement Bill’s work. Contemporary commentary comes, of course, with the biases of the time, but is fascinating, both in spite of and because of that. Unfortunately, as is the way with newspapers, not all the articles have bylines.

ML Skinner, The fifth sparrowHaving said all this, the first article I’m using is not quite contemporary, having been written in 1973, and does have a byline, Maurice Dunlevy. He is writing because of a new Heinemann edition of the book, and seems to draw his information from Mollie Skinner’s autobiography, The fifth sparrow, which Bill’s Paul Eggert also uses, and from the Heinemann edition’s introduction by Professor Harry T Moore. (There is, it appears, no lack of critical analysis of this work!) Dunlevy notes the existence of previous writings on the pair, but also says that:

We can certainly be more sure of our facts than the reviewers were a half-century ago when they thought that Mollie Skinner was a man.

Presumably this was because she is cited on the book as ML not Mollie Skinner – though it’s pretty clear that she was well-known in her birth state of Western Australia. Interestingly, some editions of the book don’t have her name on the cover at all.

Anyhow, Dunlevy quotes Skinner’s description of Lawrence as:

a man-boy with the little red beard, scarlet lips, strange eyes flashing with amused lights, and an upright body held with dignity.

Dunlevy goes on the describe how the novel came about – Skinner’s showing Lawrence some of her work, his expressing approval of her writing and suggesting she write about a particular topic, and her eventually sending him her manuscript of the novel she called The house of Ellis.

He then reports that:

Lawrence thought the book had “good stuff” in it, but was “without unity or harmony”, “without form, like the world before Creation”. He offered to re-cast it and have it published under their joint names.

This recasting, apparently, included recasting the hero, Jack (who was based on Mollie’s brother) to be “not quite so absolutely blameless an angel”. This included his coming to believe he was entitled to two wives. Dunlevy reports that Mollie cried when she read of this change! He also writes that Lawrence recast what was essentially “a conventional, parochial romance of an English boy sent to Australia for a social gaffe” and who then turns hero, into

a much more complex and universal story, the story of an Englishman responding to the new freedoms, the new challenges, the new possibilities for living an unconventional life on a frontier not bogged down by traditions. It is also one of the few good examples of an “Australian” version of that situation so familiar in American literature: a boy’s initiation into manhood.

Nonetheless, Professor Moore does say:

The writing throughout is distinctly Lawrencean and the book should rank as a Lawrence novel, though Mollie Skinner’s extremely important contribution should be noted”.

But what of more contemporary commentary? As Bill noted, it did tend to be more parochial. Here’s one from a paragraph on Publications Received in Western Australia’s The Great Southern Herald (14 March 1925). The writer suggests that Skinner wrote all the lovely descriptive material, perfectly capturing “the scenery and scents of the bush” about Perth and Fremantle, but:

the narrative itself is a discredit to the Australians it attempts to depict. It is a story of sordidness and immorality with the characters speaking a mixture of Bowery and Cockney slang. The one thing, beyond all others, that the average Australian is remarkable for, is the purity of his diction, in this respect being far above the average Englishman, and it is an insult to characterise him as speaking the awful polygot which appears in “The Boy in the Bush.” The opening chapters of the book grip one with their descriptive power … [and] … stamp the writer as one who knows and loves the West. Of the rest of the story, the less said the better.

I do love the comment about the “average Australian” being “remarkable” for “the purity of his diction.” I’m not sure I’ve heard that said before. Anyhow, the writer concludes that Skinner “will shortly publish The Black Swan, written without collaboration, and which should offer better proof of her literary powers”!

Someone called Norbar, writing a little later in 1938, is a little more even-handed, writing:

STRANGELY different from other West Australian authors is Miss Mollie Skinner. Her work has an elusive character which is difficult to grasp. Its naivete, lack of discipline and neglect of construction have led many to dismiss it as worthless, yet the hypercritical D. H. Lawrence, one of the greatest figures in 20th century English literature, not only praised her first book but collaborated with her in a second and urged her to complete a third. Miss Skinner’s collaboration with Lawrence in “The Boy in the Bush,” however, besides dragging her into the type of controversy which would not normally have been associated with her work, has unduly overshadowed her own originality.

Norbar then says, confirming his criticism at the beginning of this paragraph, that it’s easy to find fault in her books but that “in none of them does she fall into the facile pattern of stock character and situation which fills the lending libraries.” After some further discussion of Skinner’s collaboration with Lawrence, and of some of her later works, s/he concludes with the following assessment, which is a good a place on which to conclude this discussion:

In Miss Skinner’s novels we find her considerable originality, spiritual perception and feeling use of words circumscribed at every turn by almost school-girl conceptions of situation and character, probably an unconscious legacy from a mid-Victorian middleclass sensibility which has lingered among the old families of Australia long after its wane in England. Whatever contempt men like Lawrence might feel for English intellectual aridness, Miss Skinner would have benefited from early introduction into a circle invigorated by the new realism inspired from Scandinavia and France, even if she had had to slough it off afterwards. But literary and spiritual currents had little effect on the respectable classes of Australia and Miss Skinner’s training and traditions were against her turning to the democratic crudity of the working class, the salvation of many Australian writers. She has, consequently, been left high and dry and her work bears the marks of her isolation.

An interesting insight into some thinking of the critics/reviewers of the day, n’est-ce pas? There are some things here worth teasing out another time.