Monthly Archives: January 2011

I swear (not)

Yesterday The Age had a four letter word on the front page of the newspaper.  Not the f- word, but the other one. It’s  perhaps not quite as offensive, but it’s nonetheless  a word that I consider to be a swear-word.

It was in an article about the Labor  government’s ferocious prosecution of whistleblowers and leakers.  A former senior federal police source told The Age that if the government wanted to investigate the leaking of Government material, the Australian Federal Police would do so:

If the government wants us to do it, they’re our masters, so we do it.  And that’s not just a particular government- both Labor and Liberal and everyone in between gets the shits when their policies are undermined or their big announcements appear on the front page of the newspapers 24 hours before they announce it.

Using the s- word on the front page is no great crime, although I did raise an eyebrow.  But I found myself using the s- word and the f-word as well when viewing the footage of the cars being washed away in Toowoomba.  You’ve probably seen it by now.

What strikes me, though,  is that the young people taking the video are not swearing at all- not a single “Oh my God” or 4-letter word in the whole video.  The commentary under the YouTube version perhaps gives an explanation-  the photographer suggests that donations be directed to a  Church of Christ appeal, and asks for prayer.  I wonder if these wholesome young people are working in an office associated with the church?  I can only assume that the video was shot from the back windows of the office, hence their only vague concern about their own cars ‘out the front’.    While their commentary is rather awe-struck and banal, it’s better than a string of expletives and OMGs.

I never keep my New Years Resolutions.  Each year I say that I will exercise more, lose weight, and work harder on my thesis instead of blogging (hmmm…..). But perhaps this year I will really try to swear less.  It’s very unattractive; I don’t like listening to it from other people and I’d like to really work on it.

‘Into the Woods’ by Anna Krien

298 p.  2010

I did intend starting this blog with a reflection on the “Note about the Printing of this Book”  that appears at the end of this book- you know, the page where somebody (the author?) waxes lyrical about the paper and coos about the  font used and how boutique it all is.  But then I looked at the YouTube footage of the attack by Tasmanian forestry workers on the protesters that prompted this book, and somehow my opening observation seemed rather twee.

The footage is below.  The language is crude and ugly, but I suggest that you do not turn off  the sound because the rage, and the terror it induces, are also muted if it plays silently.

You wonder where this would have ended had the protesters actually “got out of the f***ing car” and taken them on.  Likewise you wonder what publicity if any this would have garnered had there not been the video evidence and the platform of YouTube to distribute it.

And yet, the raw and ugly emotion of the video and the slight preciousness of the anxiety over the type of paper selected for the book are both manifestations of the complexity of the Tasmanian forests debate.   Few (none?) of us can avoid using forestry products; this very book discussing the issue is printed on it and sold in shops choked full with the stuff.  There are generations of forestry workers and there are timber communities.  Beautiful objects are made of wood. There are those mountains of woodchips sent offshore as fodder to enrich other economies, but then there are the environmental hazards of the pulp processing facilities that perhaps we don’t want here after all.

Anna Krein makes no secret of the fact that her first sympathies lie with the protesters.  It is the video footage above that propelled her across the straits to write the essay from which this book arose, and although repulsed by the dreadlocks and dumpster-diving,  it was amongst the protesters and their share houses that was ‘home’ during her time there.   But she ranges across a number of players as well- the loggers,  the timber workers, the politicians, representatives from Forestry Tasmania, but not the timber company Gunns itself which did not participate.   However, these were excursions to ‘the other side’, and she makes no secret of this.

This book is not the  ‘he said’/’she said’ pretence of even-handedness by which objectivity is claimed by providing equal time to all sides.  At some point, the journalist/writer/historian  has move beyond being a mouthpiece for conflicting interests by confronting the “here I stand” moment and actually crafting an argument that she owns.  Krien perhaps sidesteps this slightly by shifting her gaze onto the relationship between Gunns and the Tasmanian government- a relationship that is tangled by the small size of the Tasmanian population and the myriad and constantly shifting connections between government, Forestry Tasmania the government-owned enterprise, and Gunns itself.  It’s a grubby and disheartening story, and one that makes me bristle with distrust.  It makes me wary of the recent ‘Statement of Principles to Lead to an Agreement’ of October 2010 which seems to have been conducted in secrecy- the hallmark of the Gunns/Government/Forestry Tasmania triumvirate- yet to have garnered the support of groups across the spectrum.  I have seen little analysis or detail of the agreement, but it is being lauded as a blue-print (green print?) for Victorian forests as well, and again conducted privately, out of sight.

The blurb from Chloe Hooper on the front cover is apposite, because Hooper and Krien are similar types of writers who move into a situation, confess (and perhaps even emphasize?) their novice status and write themselves and their emotions into their narrative.  They both are careful observers of both people and environment, and both write evocatively, clearly and conversationally.  The book confirmed and gave more factual validation to my own pre-existing sympathies- I’m not sure how I would have felt had it refuted them.  I do feel as if I am better informed, but I’m not sure if my smug “Huh- I thought so!” response takes me far.

‘The Night Watch’ by Sarah Waters

2006, 503 p.

What a good book!  And what an encouraging way to start my reading for 2011 with a book that I gobbled up eagerly and closed with regret at the end.

I’ve read two other works by Sarah Waters: Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet. While I very much enjoyed them, I wondered if Waters was becoming bogged down in lesbian faux-Victoriana.  When I read that she had broken with 19th century London to move into Blitz Britannia,  I was rather relieved but again a little frustrated that it was yet another narrative with lesbian main characters. But  I know that I should not feel that way, especially when I’m in the hands of a such a sensitive and nuanced author. Many authors that I enjoy have made a particular type of story their own- Dickens with his mosaic carnival of characters; De Lillo with his America; Anne Tyler with her domestic family narratives, and I don’t at all begrudge them another book in a similar vein.  And in my own life experience over the last few months, I’ve come increasingly to sense that what really matters is love and relationships, irrespective of time, politics, country, milieu and the genders of those involved. Every life is a love story of one sort or another- and the variety is endless; or else it is a tragedy.

Waters’ narrative revolves around four main characters: Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan. Her master stroke is to tell the narrative backwards, starting in 1947, then 1944 and finally 1941. It’s a risky technique, though. As a reader there is none of the backgrounding that you come to expect and you are forced to draw your own hypotheses about the characters and how they came to be in the situations in which you originally encounter them.  At 171 pages the opening 1947 section is relatively long to sustain such uncertainty, and there is a drabness about the post-war England it portrays and the flatness of her characters’ lives.

The 1944 section is the real heart of the book, both in terms of length and in character development, and many of the questions and suppositions raised in the first section are spelled or dispelled here.  Her attention to historical detail is assured and deft, and it’s at this point that a book either wins me over or turns me off.  As I’ve often commented, I squirm when an author overloads the narrative with the cargo of historical colour and movement uncovered by too much research: on the other hand, I rebel when anachronistic sensibilities are ascribed to the characters in historical fiction.  Here Waters excels: there was only one point at which the historical detail became suffocating (it was one product-placement of Max Factor too many, I’m afraid), and by writing from a lesbian sensibility she risked, but avoided, the danger of violating the integrity of a historical fiction narrative by framing it with a 21st century mindset.  There is a timelessness about desire, fulfillment, betrayal and loss, in both mixed and same-sex relationships. It was always there, even if it was not written about at the time.

The 1941 section is short, barely 50 pages, and it provides the context that was withheld in the first section.  Somehow, by this point, it no longer matters and you find yourself nodding, as if you already understand.

I found this an absolutely satisfying book.  I’m drawn to stories about the Blitz, and although I do not know enough to judge objectively,  I had a sense that she had captured an emotional fidelity to the time.  Is it too soon, I wonder, to mark this as one of my top reads for 2011?

‘The Gentleman’s Daughter’ by Amanda Vickery

1998, 436 p.

Don’t let the demure cover deceive you: this is a rather pugnacious book that rattles the commonly-received image of female domesticity during the 18th and 19th centuries.  Amanda Vickery points out in her introduction that historians of epoch after epoch have  adopted the argument that women’s lives became increasingly marginalized and  constricted to the private sphere during the particular period that they have studied. Surely, she suggests, they can’t all be right.  Instead of identifying a particular time when women’s experience changed, she emphasizes the continuity of women’s lives across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Her research is grounded in local elites, in particular that of Lancashire.  In an exhaustive study, she examined all the letters and diaries of privileged women from the early 18th to early 19th centuries the Lancashire Record Office, irrespective of how that wealth was accrued.   By casting her net wide like this, she eschews the view of the gentry, the professions and the upper trades as distinct strata of the social hierarchy.  Instead, she sees them as part of a “woven fabric” or an “intricate cobweb” of social structure and social relations that extended both horizontally and vertically.   This local examination is then compared with London because there were so many links between Lancashire and the metropole.  One of her main information sources is Elizabeth Shackleton, whose detailed diaries for the years 1773 and 1780 are mined for a database of all social interactions in that year.

Again, though, I find myself wishing as a reader, that the introductions to her main informants were not so rushed.  One of the things that I admire so much about Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing With Strangers is that she slows down to properly introduce her sources as discrete, rounded characters.  Vickery does introduce several women in her early chapters whom we will meet again and again, and who represented a period of over 100 years but I don’t think that I realized while reading it the importance of the wide time-span that her informants operated within.  She is arguing for the continuity of women’s experiences across a wide expanse of time, resisting the urge to identify any one period of dramatic change.  This is an important argument, but  I didn’t pick up sufficiently in her opening introductions to her main informants.

From these sources, she draws out a number of themes that exercised the letter-writers and diarists of her study rather than the interests of twentieth-century historians : gentility, love and duty, fortitude and resignation, prudent economy, elegance, civility and propriety.   These abstractions were played out in the lived experience of women’s lives through courtship, marriage, childbearing, housekeeping, material culture and sociability as described by real people in their diaries and letters to each other.

My own work is based on the colonial experience, and I found myself thinking of colonial letters and diaries where these same interests were aired, but in a different setting, far from the density and bustle of English life.  For example, Vickery writes of the importance of promenades and walks as a site of leisure for the female world, and I found myself thinking of The Block in Melbourne- a smaller walk perhaps, but one which fulfilled the same function.  She describes the way that roles and responsibilities were often mutually agreed, and sometimes bitterly contested,  by a man and his wife, and I think of the journals of early settlers in Upper Canada and Port Phillip.  She describes the way that genteel families were linked to the world through a multiplicity of ways and I think of the smaller, but equally dense connections between Port Phillip elites and those in Upper Canada.  At the end of the book she points out that the sociability of  any individual woman’s life shifted according to her progress through the life span- as young girl on the marriage market, mother of young children, then later chaperone of her own daughters.  “Women’s lives” are not a static condition- they respond to biology and societal expectations alike.

Why a pugnacious book? It might not seem so from my description, but she shapes up to and wrestles with the biggies of domestic historiography and sociology-  Phillipe Aries,  Lawrence Stone, Davidoff and Hall, Veblen, Habermas.   It is not particularly necessary to be familiar with these scholars and their arguments- I’m not- but perhaps the academic jousting might be a more enjoyable spectator sport if you are.  For myself, I was content with the fine detail of the lives she describes so sensitively, on their own terms and using their own concepts, and I found it a useful lens through which to view the experience of the colonial women I am encountering.

‘Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 1925-1945’ by Drusilla Modjeska

1991, 258 p

I feel as if I am reading this book at several steps removed. My copy of this book is the 1991 reprint of the original 1981 version which itself was taken from Modjeska’s PhD thesis.  So they do exist-those mythical creatures who actually get a book out of their PhD!  In the introduction to the 1991 edition  she describes the intellectual milieu in which she wrote her original thesis.  It was written in the early 1980s when she could not foresee the dominance of women in Australian writing and publishing in the upcoming decade, and under the influence of the Women’s Liberation Movement as it was known at the time.   There’s a rather rueful admission at the end of Chapter 2 that perhaps she had mis-attributed a publication to a particular author (and unfortunately, she does make rather a lot of this publication), but she allows the original text to stand.  I assume that many academics have similar infelicities which they know about in their own work, but can allow them to go through to the keeper because the work is not reprinted.  I found it interesting to read the rather earnest 1981 acknowledgments page, followed by the 1991 introduction which reflects an older, more relaxed narrative voice, more similar to that found in her other, later writings.

Modjeska points out

The 1930s were remarkable years in Australian cultural history.  Women were producing the best fiction of the period and they were, for the first and indeed only time, a dominant influence in Australian literature… They were politically active, they were often angry and they made sure their presence was felt as writers and as women.  Their remarkable history and the broader tradition that stretches beyond them has been undervalued and obscured.  This book is a history of these women writers, tracing the interconnections between their lives, their work, their politics and their fiction.  It is a book not only about social history but about writing, about cultural and ideological struggle, about feminism and fiction, about the contradictions of class and gender. (p. 1-2)

Her book ranges around a number of women novelists of the 1920s and 30s- Miles Franklin,  Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw, Eleanor Dark, Jean Devanny, Dymphna Cusack and Katharine Susannah Prichard (my impetus for reading the book).   Many of these women were linked through their contact with Nettie Palmer, whom I had only ever encountered as part of the Vance-and-Nettie-Palmer team.  Miles Franklin gets a chapter to herself, while the others are woven together by their letters and communications to and through Nettie Palmer and amongst themselves.

Much of the book discusses the role of politics on these women’s writings and identities as public intellectuals during a decade of the Depression, the rise of Fascism, Stalinism, the Spanish Civil War and World War II.   Some of them, like Prichard and Devanny became overtly identified with the Communist Party, to the detriment of their writing;  while others distanced themselves from or resisted such clear allegiance, even though Modjeska portrayed most of them as leftist in their politics. They all had to face and somehow accommodate the demands of being wife, mother and daughter.

For me, the least successful chapter came near the end of the book where she discusses a string of books, many of which I have not even heard of, let alone read.   Modjeska’s analysis is heavily influenced by the Marxist Feminism of the 1970s and 80s , something her subjects lacked:

One of the problems for the writer-women of the thirties was that their anger, their feminist protest was backed by very little theory. In consequence their political anxieties deflected from the early feminist impulse in their fiction while forcing them back on a commonsense faith  in what they knew was important in their experience as women and which they expressed as a female humanism… In the absence of theory they had to rely on those old female virtues of commonsense and intuition (p.256)

I’m not convinced that it was such a deficiency as Modjeska felt it to be, or whether she would feel that way today.

I admit to being out of my depth in much of the subject matter and I ‘m not sure whether I picked up on the overarching argument of the book.  The chapters were self contained and read almost as essays in their own right, but I wasn’t able to pull them together into a structured argument.   I have seen this book cited several times, and it obviously broke new ground when it was published.   I also sense that in many ways, the deficiencies that Modjeska identifies in terms, say, of a strong critical biography of Miles Franklin have been taken up in recent scholarship. What I did detect, however, was the complementarity between this book and Modjeska’s later work Stravinsky’s Lunch, which I class amongst the best Australian non-fiction books I have read.  And I find myself wondering, if Modjeska were to write this book today 30 years on, what sort of book it would be.

My top 7 for 2010

Why Top Seven? Well, largely because I’ve let this blog take over my reading journal where I used to score out of 10.  I haven’t made a practice of doing this here, and so it’s not quite so easy to sort out the ‘very good’ s from the ‘bloody brilliant’ s.  Also, I now no longer draw a distinction between the reading I’m doing for my thesis and my leisure reading, and that makes it harder to decide a ‘best’ compared with a ‘very useful to me in my thinking at this stage’ book.  So, subject to all these caveats,  seven it is- with links to my reviews.

1. Richard Holmes Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

2. Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall

3. Anne Fadiman Ex Libris

4. Edward P Jones The Known World

5. Richard Yates Revolutionary Road

6. Tom Griffiths Hunters and Collectors

7. Ruth Park The Harp in the South Trilogy


‘The Pioneers’ by Kathleen Susannah Prichard

I hadn’t realised during reading this book that I was actually reading a painting.  Here it is- McCubbin’s triptych “The Pioneers”- how could I have possibly missed the allusion?

The book opens with Mary Cameron, standing in the bush beside their wagon, desultorily feeding a smouldering campfire with sticks of eucalyptus that she breaks in her hands or across her knees.  She goes to a fallen trunk, sits down and gazes into the shadows.  The book closes with her grandson pushing the bush away from a “lichen-grown wooden cross”, dropping on one knee to read the inscription.  Ah- I thought- “The Pioneers”- of course!

The Pioneers won the Hodder and Stoughton All Empire Literature Prize for Australia in 1915.   It is not hard to imagine why: for a British publisher the book is steeped in eucalypts, pioneer spirit and optimism exemplified by the young colonial  soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force in WWI.   Although its author became (in)famous for her heavy Communist Party involvement in later decades,  there’s a nationalistic pride here that I, at least, find difficult to reconcile with the internationalism of her later politics.  Perhaps it was prompted by the circumstances in which it was written- by a young Australian journalist based in England, drawing on the notebooks she had penned recording the old-timers’ stories during her own time in Gippsland several years earlier.

It’s all there- the silence and forbidding beauty of the bush, the old convicts, the cattle-duffers and the bushfires- but there’s also a defiant pride in the generation that followed the pioneers, who threw off the shame of convictism that haunted their parents and grabbed the opportunities open to them.  There’s a White Australian debt to be acknowledged to the pioneers on the frontier, and a  romance and optimism about the “currency” lads and lasses growing up tall, proud and resourceful – who wouldn’t want to embrace that?

I often find it hard to talk about “old”  Australian books and authors.  There’s often a mawkishness and blatant nationalism that I’m not comfortable with as a reader.  I find myself wondering if the incorporation of such books  into the “Australian Classics” canon subjects them to a critical scrutiny that their targeted audience of the time might not have shared.  For example, a review of The Pioneers at the time noted that “the setting of romance is said to be very attractive to readers who are only incidentally interested in history”  and then as now, books were written and published with a contemporary audience in mind- an audience with different expectations and tastes to what we might have today.  For myself,  I find myself being dragged back to my 21st century reader mindset because the sentimentality and melodrama of these late19th/early 20th century books overwhelms me (two exceptions: Ruth Park’s Harp in the South and Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony).  I then find myself reading such texts as a historian, because I’m rather discomfited by them as a fiction-reader. I’m aware that this is probably not fair on the book, or the author, or my own experience as reader.

I’m particularly conscious of this because I’ve just finished reading Sarah Water’s The Night Watch (glowing review to come!) which I found much more satisfying than, say, Dymphna Cusack and Florence James’  Come In Spinner.  Surely the 1950s book written from experience would have an inherent fidelity, but in terms of my emotional response, I found the more recent text,  aimed no doubt at a different audience segment, and stripped of the popular melodrama and skittishness, more satisfying.  Perhaps it’s the different mindset that a reader brings to reading historical fiction as a genre, as distinct from popular contemporary fiction from an era that is now historical itself?

You might want to read Whispering Gums’ review of the book too.