Look carefully at that front cover. A well-dressed, attractive woman stands in front of a suburban house, her hair permed, in a stylish dress with white gloves. Those gloves are important: they encase the gouged, ravaged hands of Biff Ward’s mother Margaret. Despite the nostalgia-infused image of Margaret Ward on the cover, this is the story of a troubled and desperate woman and mother, told by her daughter.
Biff ( a childhood rendering of ‘Elizabeth’) Ward is the daughter of Russel Ward, the noted Australian historian who wrote The Australian Legend. This book was a hugely influential study of the Australian Character (the question that keeps on giving), published more than fifty years ago. Although perhaps not so well known today, The Australian Legend and its author were examined anew at a symposium in 2007 (proceedings found in the Journal of Australian Colonial History 10.2 (2008) with a summary here) and re-addressed each year through the Russel Ward Annual Lecture (see Babette Smith’s lecture here)
Although Biff’s memoir focusses on her mother, it is just as much a study of her father and of the family dynamics that operated when dealing with mental illness, shame and fear in the context of the 1950s and 1960s. Biff and her brother Mark had always known of the existence of an earlier child, Alison, who had died at the age of four months,but the conditions surrounding Alison’s death were murky. What was clear, though, was that their mother Margaret was a deeply disturbed woman. Those gloved hands, torn and rubbed raw by Margaret herself, also throttled Biff as Margaret crept to her younger daughter’s bedside one night, and it was when Margaret threatened the lives of her two remaining children while her husband was absent at a conference, that Russel Ward finally had her committed. Although Biff felt that they were dealing with the nightmare of their mother’s illness in secrecy, many people were aware of it, as Biff herself recognizes later. In reading a short story ‘Friends in Perspective’ published by Gwen Kelly in a Meanjin article in 1990 (available for Victorian readers through SLV), Biff realizes that both Russel and Margaret were the topic of gossip and judgment throughout the small academic communities at ANU in Canberra and UNE in New England. She has the maturity and grace to recognize that the academic wives may well have been reaching out to her mother as well, instead of just gossiping about her.
She captures small university-town life well, and places her father within the academic milieu of the communist-phobic 1950s and 1960s. She draws on Russel Ward’s own letters to his parents and sisters that documented Margaret’s progress, and to a lesser degree on Ward’s own autobiography which largely elides Alison’s death and Margaret’s illness. I found it interesting to read about the smallness of the Australian History fraternity at the time, and the intellectual isolation of local academics in a world where international conferences and networks were luxuries.
Biff did not write this memoir until both her parents had died. She is well aware that she is exposing her mother, and perhaps from a sense of moral even-handedness, she exposes her father’s sexual addiction as well. Even writing as an adult, as Biff does, it is impossible to tease out cause and effect in this addiction, but it does raise the issue of omission in memoir. Is there more? or less? of an imperative to reveal the flaws of a public figure, as distinct from someone unknown? (I’m reminded here of journalist Laurie Oakes’ exposure of politican Cheryl Kernot’s extramarital affair when she omitted it in her own autobiography). Although Ward’s revelations about both parents are startling, the tone is wistful rather than vindictive, and while she censures both parents at times, her compassion shines through.
There’s a fairly lengthy extract from the book here, which will give you a taste of the easy narrative that, at the same time, reveals so much darkness and pain. You’ll spend quite some time turning to that image on the front cover.
Sue at Whispering Gums and Jonathan at Me Fail? I Fly! have written sensitive reviews of this book
I’ve reviewed this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2016.
My rating: 9/10
Sourced from : Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book . Read in one sitting on an international flight!
Thanks for the link, RJ. As you may remember, Biff attended my reading group’s discussion of her memoir. She was wonderful. One of the things that impresses my about this memoir is her honesty. It took her a long time to work through the impact of her childhood on her, and to be so honest and yet as compassionate as she is is a credit to her strength of character. That she loved her dad immensely is obvious, and yet she is so clear-eyed about his failings/weaknesses.
I also enjoyed the insight into the academic communities at the time, and of course that discrimination against communists and socialists. UNE did the academic world, not to mention itself, a great service when it hired those ignored by the big name universities!
I went to a conference up at UNE a few years back. I think that Biff really captured the distinctive nature of Armidale as a prosperous rural university town so well (I’m not sure that there are other university towns quite like it in Australia?)
A very fine review, Mme Judge. Thanks for linking to me.
A pleasure, and I’m delighted that through Sue and Lisa’s blogs, I’ve found yours!
Lovely review. Didn’t get to this last year but maybe I should this year… (I tend to subconsciously avoid ‘difficult’ books since my son was born…)
The subject matter IS difficult, but the writing is fluid and easy- almost deceptively so.
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