‘Housewife Superstar’ by Danielle Wood


2011, 209 p.

I happened to hear Shannon Lush on the radio the other day- she of the handy household hint and stain removal. How Olde Worlde, I thought: household advice on the ‘wireless’! It brought to mind my mother, who listened religiously to Martha Gardner on the radio. My mother was of the class and generation of women for whom ‘housewife’ was a conscious career choice, a source of pride, learning and improvement. There were new products to try and master, old skills to polish and pass on, recipes to experiment with, and new trends and fashions to encompass. The household hint genre of newspaper columns, books and radio and television programs fed right into this view of housework.
I have never heard of Marjorie Bligh, who seems to have been a Tasmanian phenomenon. I guess that each Australian capital city had their own version. Tasmania’s Marjorie Bligh is said to have been the origin of Barry Humphrey’s Edna Everage, before she became a Dame (humph!) and while she was still Norm’s wife, Valmai’s friend and Kenny’s mother. One of the author’s quests in this book was to probe this claim.

Marjorie had three authorial name changes from Marjorie Blackwell to Marjorie Cooper to Marjorie Bligh as she moved through three marriages. It is a sign of her own individual presence and what we would now call her ‘brand’ that her followers recognized her and followed her through these different guises. Her first marriage was an unhappy one ending in divorce, something more devastating and noteworthy then than now, and she was widowed twice. The author, Danielle Wood, treats these marriages with respect but with a clear eye as well. She allows Marjorie to tell her own story, to withhold and to embellish, but it is quite easy for the reader to fill in the silences and to imagine the other perspectives that others in her story might tell.
Marjorie Pearsall was born in 1917 in Ross, in the Tasmanian midlands. The convict architectural heritage of the town would not have been a tourist drawcard at that time. Her father died when Marjorie was three. Marjorie, as she told it in her own autobiographical writings, was always an industrious homebody, making money for the straitened family through running errands for the teachers, cleaning the school room, knitting and sewing. She was a perfectionist and had ‘stickability’ (p. 31). After leaving school she worked as a ‘help’ until she met her first husband Cliff, whom she married in 1938. In a world seemingly untouched by war, they shifted to Campbelltown.

It was there that she set her sights on the Agricultural Show. In 1958 she surpassed her record of the preceding two years, winning prizes in seventy-eight categories. Her passion was the creation of her dream home, Climar (the combination of Cliff and Marjorie’s names), an Art-Deco inspired brick house, now on the Heritage register (for all the good that will do, as Banyule has taught me) and rather oddly dated for its completion date of 1955. My ex-husband’s family lived in a very similar house that was built in the late 30s-early 1940s- perhaps architectural trends took longer to reach Tasmania?  You can see a photo of Climar here (there are many other photographs related to Marjorie Bligh on this site as well.)

There seems to have been a falling out with the Agricultural Show committee in 1958 over the awarding of the W. T. Findlay cup for most points awarded, and she withdrew from exhibitions in 1960, 1961 and 1962 and in this hiatus in her show career she turned to writing. Marjorie Blackwell at Home was her first book, published in 1965. It was to be republished in three editions . In 1973 under the name At Home with Marjorie Cooper, and then again in 1998 as At Home with Marjorie Bligh. The first edition was 310 pages in length, comprising 44 sections covering food, flowers, gardens, children’s parties, pets and stains. “All these things” Marjorie wrote assertively in the foreword “are dear to the heart and the majority of all women.”

“Assertively” is the operative word here. Danielle Wood’s book is sprinkled with the dictates and aphorisms of Marjorie Blackwell/Cooper/Bligh, gleaned from this and her other publications. There’s a rather threatening confidence in the way that Marjorie frames her advice implying that of course you would WANT to prevent the cock from crowing (by placing a lath above his head so that his comb brushes against it) or WANT TO walk to country dances wearing a rubbish bag with two holes cut in it, drawn up to your waist with the pull-tie to protect the hem of your gown from the mud.

They’re small slices of life from another world. Some examples:  try putting sticky tape on your toddler’s hands and watching ‘him’ being delightful as he tries to pull it off; use a slice of beetroot to rub on your cheeks if you run out of rouge; make a nice apron for yourself by sewing together nine men’s ties. Her worldview is that of “wilful waste brings woeful want” (a family aphorism that I grew up with as well) borne not only from straitened circumstances but also almost as a form of resistance to the deluge of manufactured consumerist goods that now engulf us. However, I still struggle to imagine WHY you would want to crochet a cover for a 5 litre icecream container (so handy for transporting small cakes and scones) out of used bread wraps.

Wood (or her publishers) have decided that these excerpts from Marjorie’s writings drawn from her books and autobiographies should be inserted throughout the book. Hence, as well as small break-out boxes on the side of the text, the narrative is interrupted for pages at a time with a lengthy extract. I’m not sure if I liked it or not. I found myself distracted by reading the excerpt, but on the other hand it captured well this nagging, insistent soundtrack of what I perceived as Marjorie’s imperious, bossy narrative voice.

By the end of Marjorie’s long career, I think that she had become an unwitting parody of herself. Danielle Wood obviously has great affection for her, but is somewhat wary of her as well. In the foreword, she describes her as “formidable”.

 As I write, she is ninety four years old, and almost certainly muttering into her coffee cup about the dire consequences that will befall me if I fail to finish this book before she dies.

She did. The book was published in 2011 and Marjorie died in September 2013.
In her conclusion, Wood reflects on her own ambivalent feelings about Marjorie (p.206)

Though I have spent hundreds of hours with her books and diaries, and talked with her, I still struggle to get a fix on Marjorie. At times on the page, I have found her difficult to warm to. But while she is often self-serving in her explanations of past events, she is also honest enough to supply the facts that allow readers to construct alternative understandings. In person, I have always enjoyed her frankness, humour and generosity. But I have always known, too, that she would have me on toast in a flash if I vexed her or let her down. It has been difficult to reconcile the written Marjorie with the living one, and simultaneously to understand the multiple versions of Marjorie that have manifested during her ninety four years.

The book is lightly written and yet insightful. It’s quite a difficult task to render gently and with respect someone who has, with the passing of time, almost become a spoof. Wood lets Marjorie speak for herself, and lets the reader fill in the silences and omissions. Ironically, with the return to ‘natural’ products and deep-green environmentalism, Marjorie could become an unlikely poster-girl for sustainability, and some may wish that there was an index to this book to locate an unlikely household hint. It is a book which chuckles to itself, but quietly.

awwbadge_2014I’m posting this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.


9 responses to “‘Housewife Superstar’ by Danielle Wood

  1. Hmmm, I have heard both Martha and Shannon on the radio, yes many years apart, and have books by both of them, often referred to for some stain removal. Lush is amazing.

  2. This book and person sound odd. There was another world out there when I was growing up!

    • Actually, I was rather disconcerted by how FAMILIAR much of this was to me. I think that mum must have been a closet Marjorie Bligh. Or worse- that I am!!!

      • 🙂 My grandmother thought that women should be above housework so supported my mother when she was studying for HSC when I was little. My mother studied science at university while I was growing up. Women in my family did housework which was necessary but no more!

  3. How fascinating! Your review puts me in mind of reading the biography of Margaret Olley by Meg Stewart, because I perceive the same problem here: while one of the advantages of writing a bio of a living person is that you can ask them direct questions, the corollary is that the subject can refuse to answer questions, tell lies or obfuscations or make it clear that there are no-go areas. There were, in the Olley bio, questions obvious to me that were unanswered or set aside for some unmentioned reason, and if the biographer writes with the subject ‘looking over her shoulder’ that must surely be an inhibition of some sort. My guess is that having to submit this bio to an imperious subject would have made it harder to ‘get a fix on her’, eh?

    • Yes. I think that Wood did a good job in signalling where the fault lines and obfuscations were, but I think that Marjorie would be a rather imperious subject. And the trouble is, that once she’s dead (which she is now), there seems something rather ungenerous about raking over it all. It would have to be done very sympathetically!

  4. Pingback: Ruminations on a Thing | Stumbling Through the Past

  5. Pingback: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 Finished | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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