Monthly Archives: January 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.