Nadia Wheatley, Her mother’s daughter: A memoir (#BookReview)

Nadia Wheatley, Her mother's daughterIn Her mother’s daughter: A memoir, Australian writer Nadia Wheatley has written the sort of hybrid biography-memoir that I’ve reviewed a few times in this blog. All of them, as I mentioned in my recent Meet the Author post, have been mother-daughter stories, Susan Varga’s Heddy and me, Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister, and Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother. It’s this hybrid form that I’d particularly like to explore in this post.

And the hybrid I’m talking about is one where the biography is of the subject (mothers, in these cases) and the memoir is of the writer (the daughters.) This is the more common form of hybrid biography-memoir, though my research did turn up others, such as Room to dream by Kristine McKenna and David Lynch in which McKenna’s biographical chapters on Lynch are followed by Lynch’s responses to those.

The biographer’s question

There are, of course, many memoirs by people who, in order to tell their own story, need to figure out their relationships with others, particularly their parents. However, these books remain primarily about the writer. Hybrid biography-memoirs, on the other hand, tend to be as much, if not more, about the other person as the writer. The end result might be the writer understanding themselves more, but the focus tends to be the other. This was clearly Wheatley’s intention. Indeed she told us that her biographer’s question was “Why would a nice person like Neen marry an awful person like my father?”

So, her book’s main focus, then is her mother. Nina (Neen) Wheatley, nee Watkin, was born in northern New South Wales in 1906, and died in Sydney in 1958. She lost her own mother when she was five years old. She and her siblings were separated when her father remarried, with Nina and her younger sister Boo staying with their father and his new wife. It became clear that the family expected Nina to be the parents’ carer in their old age. However, Nina managed to train as a nurse, and go overseas during the war as an enlisted nurse with the 6th AGH (Australian General Hospital), where she worked in Greece and Palestine. She returned to Europe after the war to work with UNRRA and then IRO, caring for Displaced Persons. It was during this time that she met the man – English doctor, John Wheatley – she ended up marrying. It was a bad decision: he was a womaniser, possessive and controlling, and, according to Wheatley, sadistic. Indeed, it’s very likely that, had he – and the medical fraternity more broadly – taken women’s health seriously, Nina would not have died when she did. After her mother’s death when Wheatley was 9 years old, she, an only child, lived with a local family known to her (and chosen by her mother before her death.) This was, for Wheatley, a problematic situation – but this part of the story occupies just the last 20 or so pages of the book, and, while it’s important to the overall memoir, I do want to move onto other points.

So, back to the form. Unlike Wheatley, those other three biographers-cum-memoirsts, Varga, Blay and Rubin, were able, as adults, to question their mothers. They could bring an adult’s eye to their mothers, and ask the sorts of questions an adult might ask. They all tape-recorded their mothers. Wheatley’s mother, however, died when Wheatley was nine, so concocting her mother’s story was a very different challenge. Fortunately – and how prescient of her – she realised that her memories wouldn’t last so, at 10 years old, she started writing down her memories of the happy times she spent with her mother and also the stories her mother had told her about her life. At times I wondered how she could possibly have remembered as much detail as she does. However, given Wheatley was clearly a writer from the start and given what she experienced was so powerful, it wasn’t hard to trust her authenticity. It’s these stories and  memories, together with letters, journals and interviews with family members and friends, and official records, that provide the facts for her mother’s biography.

Step one, then, is the research, but next comes how to marshall it all into a narrative. Varga and Rubin, like Wheatley, take us on a journey of discovery. As Wheatley said during the conversation with Halligan, she wanted to take the reader on the quest with her. She wanted to share the detective story of her unravelling her mother’s story, and not just present the evidence. Varga and Rubin do something similar, but they tell their story first person, sharing when their mother is reticent, when they, as daughters, are challenged, and so on. Varga makes it clear to her mother – and us – that this means “it won’t be her life story, not properly” but would be “filtered” through her “reactions and thoughts”, her “second generation eyes.”

Blay, however, is more formal, presenting her mother Hela and aunt Janka’s stories in their words as transcribed from her interviews with them. She intersperses these with her own perspective in italics. The three voices are thus distinct.

Wheatley, though, uses a different approach again. She tells her mother’s story third person, but, intermittently, will suddenly switch to first person to present her own role in the research or the story, removing us from Nina’s chronology to her own time-frame. Chapter 9, which relates her mother’s life immediately postwar, is a good example. The first 10 pages read like a standard biography, describing what Nina was doing, quoting from letters and journals to support the information, then, suddenly, after a reference to Nina’s father’s death, she flashes to nine years after Nina’s own death (and over twenty years after the time we’ve been in.) Nadia is dining with her Auntie Boo, and casually asks if she knows where Nina’s wedding ring is. Her aunt bursts into tears, saying:

‘Daddy’s will was so unfair! To leave everything to Neen! Not just Glenorie, but everything in it!’ As my aunt moved on in her attack, it turned out that I too was guilty as charged: ‘All those things that Nina and you had in that house at Strathfield, you had no right to them.’

Now, Nina’s father had left “other real estate to his other children” but leaving the family home to Nina rankled so much, writes Nadia, that “some of her siblings would never get over it.” After a page on all this, we are returned to Nina’s life, and the third person voice.

This approach ensures that as well as travelling the journey with Nadia, we also see the impact on her, and her sense of guilt, as she is growing up. There are many insertions like this, including one later in the book when Nadia remembers a time with her father when she was three years old. With this approach, Nina’s story is told chronologically, but Nadia’s is disjointed until after Nadia is born when her story is gradually folded in to the main narrative. It’s a tricky approach, but Wheatley, an experienced novelist and biographer, makes it work, resulting in something that provides both a coherent biography of her mother, and the impact on her. It doesn’t necessarily work if you are expecting a detailed memoir of Wheatley’s life, but that wasn’t Wheatley’s goal.

Defining moments

Interesting as all this is, however, the main joy in reading Her mother’s daughter lies in its social history of the first half of the twentieth century. Wheatley’s story of her mother’s experience as an active participant in World War 2 is vivid, and makes a significant contribution to a less covered aspect of that war. Her story of her mother’s life in Sydney during 1950s is significant too – but terribly so.

Nina’s War “story” was fascinating. Her reports of her early experience are cheerful, full of a sense of adventure and camaraderie, but that soon changes as her real war experience starts. She sees the impact of bombing on civilians in Greece, and she nurses casualties of the Syrian campaigns including El Alamein. She already cared about social justice before going to war, but her desire to help others firmed afterwards. Her experience of forced repatriations, of seeing “Poles packed like cattle in trucks” during her work with UNRRA, was “a defining moment” writes Wheatley. Nina wrote in her journal that “This experience will have an intense influence on all my life.”

Wheatley’s description of her mother’s work with Displaced Persons is inspiring, showing Nina to be a resourceful and empathetic woman who managed to create harmony in extremely difficult circumstances. However, her marriage to Dr Wheatley saw this confident, warm woman brought undone. Her husband’s cruel, self-centred behaviour soon soured all Nina’s hopes of a happy marriage of equals. Nadia writes that he either “provoked arguments” with her mother, or set up “elaborate games in which I was the pawn he used to take the queen.” That – and his womanising – were bad enough but, when in 1956 Nina started feeling unwell, the situation became dire because Nina fell prey to a male-dominated medical system, actively supported by her doctor husband. The belief that the ills women of Nina’s now middle-age felt were all “in the mind” resulted in her eventual destruction. It’s devastating for Nina (of course) and for Nadia from whom so much, before and after, was kept secret – but, for anyone who knows or lived through the 50s, it’s only too believable.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, not all the defining moments of Nina’s life were positive ones.

Now, once again, I’ve outstayed my welcome, so I’ll conclude by saying that Her mother’s daughter is a great read for two reasons. Firstly, it provides a thoughtful, authentic – sometimes exciting, sometimes disturbing – social history of the times. And secondly, with Wheatley’s ability to write engaging narratives, it makes for engrossing, moving, provocative reading. I do recommend it.

AWW Badge 2018Nadia Wheatley
Her mother’s daughter: A memoir
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2018
ISBN: 9781925603491

Nadia Wheatley in conversation with Marion Halligan

Nadia Wheatley, Marion Halligan,

Nadia Wheatley and Marion Halligan, ANU Meet the Author

Nadia Wheatley is, I fear, not as well-known in Australia’s literary firmament as she should be because her credentials are excellent. Not only is there My place (1987) – a wonderful multi-award-winning children’s book about the history of place – but her biography of Charmian Clift, The life and myth of Charmian Clift, has been described by critic Peter Craven as “one of the greatest Australian biographies.” She has appeared here in a Monday Musings list of books recommended by indigenous writers (even though she is not indigenous) for her book, with Ken Searle, The Papunya School book of country and history. And these are just a few of her literary credentials.

All this is to say that when I saw that she was to be a “Meet the author” subject this week at the ANU – on a free night for me, no less – I didn’t hesitate to book. It didn’t hurt, too, that her Conversation partner was to be Marion Halligan (who has appeared here several times, in various guises.)

Now, I don’t want to discuss in detail her latest book – Her mother’s daughter: A memoir – which was the reason for this event, because I have almost finished it and will discuss it in my soon-to-come post, so I’ll just share, briefly, some of the main points from the conversation.

“Caught between an independent woman and a controlling man”

The book’s title suggests that the book is Wheatley’s memoir of her life with her mother (Nina, familiarly called Neen.) However, this is only part of the story. The book is, in fact, like a few I’ve read recently, a sort of hybrid biography-memoir, because it is as much a biography of her mother, who died in 1958 when Nadia was 9, as it is a memoir. Three others I’ve discussed here in recent years are Susan Varga’s Heddy and me, Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister, and Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother. Interestingly, the mothers in all of these books experienced World War 2 in some way, though Wheatley’s mother differs from the other three European-born women in that she was an Australian who went over to work in the war.

Marion Halligan commenced the conversation by commenting that the book was a difficult read, and that it must also have been difficult to write. Wheatley agreed, commenting that people under-estimate children’s ability to suffer, but also their ability to survive…

… and both suffer and survive, Wheatley did. She was caught, she said, “between an independent woman and a controlling man”, but that was only the half of it. She wasn’t helped by a family which – only partly because it was the 1950s – did not feel the need to tell Wheatley what had really happened to her mother, resulting in the young Nadia hoping (if not totally believing), for some years, that one day her mother would return. She was abandoned by her father, whom she described as “a strange, sadistic person.” The family dynamics are complex, and I’ll discuss some of them a little more in my post on the book.

I will say, however, that the underlying biographer’s question for Nadia in writing the book was:

Why would a nice person like Neen marry an awful person like my father?

Because, awful he was … though not, it seems, to Neen in the early years of their relationship when they were working for/with refugees and displaced persons in post-war Europe!

What lifts this book above what could so easily have been a misery memoir is that it also works as social history of an era – of life in Australia in the first half of the twentieth century, and of the work Australian nurses did during and after the Second World War. The pictures Wheatley draws of the joys (yes) and challenges of the War for Nina are vivid, and ring true. Nina was a truly independent woman, despite the demands home and family exerted on unmarried “girls” at the time. The pictures Wheatley then draws of Nina post-marriage are, consequently, even more devastating – because of the gap between what could (should) have been and what was. Nina’s dire situation was compounded by the confluence of a controlling, sadistic husband and a time, the 1950s, when women had little agency in the face of such a situation. Even so, Nina did her best …

At one point during the conversation, Wheatley made the interesting – and obvious, if you know their stories – point that there are some parallels between her and her mother’s stories. Both were motherless from a young age, and both became involved in social justice action. There was discussion in fact about how her mother’s work with refugees is relevant to today’s refugee situation. Nina worked for the short-lived UNRRA and was involved in the early definition of just what a refugee is and in the practice of placing them.

Telling the story

Nadia Wheatley, Her mother's daughterIn the Q&A, I asked Wheatley about the structure she chose to use in the book, about the fact that while is it generally chronological, she inserts herself into this chronology at times when she herself wouldn’t have been alive. For example, she describes the young Nadia asking her mother about a photo in an album. This enables us to see Nadia’s interest in her mother’s story, her reaction to her mother’s story, and her mother’s later reaction to the events in her life, at least in terms of how she wants to present them to Nadia. From the reader’s point of view, it makes reading this book far more engaging.

Wheatley answered that felt she needed to be in there “on the quest”, and referred us to AJA Simon’s biography A quest for Corvo: An experiment in biography, as one of her inspirations. She wanted the book to be her journey of discovery – “to have the detective story of her unravelling her mother’s story” – rather than just be a presentation of the evidence. Again, I will talk more about this in my post, but Wheatley did share some of the stories about how she went about this unravelling. I like this approach to non-fiction, not only because it’s usually engaging, but because it can strengthen the authority or integrity of the work.

There was more to the conversation – but some of it, as I’ve already said, will come out in my post, and some of it is best left for you to read yourselves in the book. I mustn’t give it all away!

Vote of thanks

To conclude, MC Colin Steele introduced The Canberra Times’ past – and, distressingly, to date, last – literary editor, Gia Metherell, to give the vote of thanks. In doing so, she said that Wheatley’s book shows why childhood biographies can be so potent. She quoted the late Australian critic Geraldine Pascall* (I think) who said that Australian writers write more often and more potently about their childhood than anyone else, besides English and French writers. What an interesting thought on which to end a thoroughly engaging conversation.

* Gia Metherell clarifies this in the comments below saying that it wasn’t Geraldine Pascall to whom she was referring but English academic Roy Pascal. However, on checking later, she realised she had misremembered and it was Richard Coe, in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Australian: Childhood, Literature and Myth”, Southerly, 41, no. 2, 1981. Thanks Gia.

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
8 October 2018