Monthly Archives: October 2020

‘Vida: A woman for our time’ by Jacqueline Kent

2020, 284 p.

Perhaps biographies are like buses….nothing for ages, and then two or three arrive all at once. Vida Goldstein, the subject of this 2020 biography by Jacqueline Kent, did not receive a full-length biography until 1993, when Janette Bomford published her book That Dangerous and Persuasive Woman: Vida Goldstein, which I reviewed here. She featured in Claire Wright’s You Daughters of Freedom in 2018, and appears as a minor character in Caroline Rasmussen’s recent joint biography of Maurice and Doris Blackburn The Blackburns (2019). She has always appeared as part of the network surrounding Stella (Miles) Frankin and Catherine Helen Spence, but in terms of full length biographical treatment, the two main works have appeared in the last 27 years.

In her introduction to this biography, Jacqueline Kent notes that Goldstein is briefly mentioned in almost every history of women in Australia, but “her name is not particularly well known outside scholarly circles”. (Voters in the federal seat of Goldstein, in the bayside areas of Melbourne might beg to differ. As Kent points out, the electoral division might be named after her, but it has never sent a female MP to the House of Representatives). Kent writes that her biography

…seeks to show how much Vida was not simply a woman of her times, but someone whose views and beliefs are refreshingly contemporary – and so who is equally a woman of our time.


Kent has written other biographies, but she is best known for her biography of Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard The Making of Julia Gillard (2009) and a smaller work Take Your Best Shot: The Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard (2013). Gillard remains a touchstone throughout this biography of Vida Goldstein as well, with Kent inserting present-day comments drawing parallels between Goldstein and Gillard’s experiences in parentheses in various places throughout the text. This connection comes to the fore in the epilogue, where Kent claims that Vida and her colleagues would have been “delighted to see Julia Gillard confirmed as the country’s first woman prime minister” which she follows with a four-page summary of Gillard’s prime ministership. This presentism is foreshadowed in the subtitle ” A woman for our time”.

When writing her biography, Janette Bomford bemoaned the lack of a cache of personal papers that would reveal the inner Vida Goldstein. Kent has had to work from the same straitened resources, and a quick glance at the footnotes reveals Kent’s debt to Bomford’s earlier biography. As a result, I’m not going to reprise Goldstein’s life here – instead I refer you to my review of Bomford’s book – because the events are much the same, which is to be expected when both authors are working from the same sources. Kent briefly raises, but then shuts down, speculation that Goldstein may have had a lesbian relationship with her friend and colleague Cecilia John. I’m not sure that it is a useful suggestion as there is absolutely no evidence for it, but perhaps it was prompted by Kent’s attempt to frame Vida as “a woman for our time”.

So where, then, does the difference lie in the two biographies? Unfortunately, I must have borrowed Bomford’s book because I can’t find it on my shelves, so I don’t have the two texts on my desk to compare. I can only work from impressions.

First, Kent’s book seems more Melbourne-oriented than I remember Bomford’s book being. Although she travelled to both U.S. and U.K, and although she had connections with feminists in other states, Goldstein lived and worked at the Victorian level in trying to get female representation in Parliament. Although given importance in the text and forming stepping stones in her life’s chronology, these national and international personal networks do not play an integral part in Kent’s narrative. Instead, Goldstein comes over as rather isolated and toiling away single-handedly here in Victoria, estranged both from party politics (which she abhorred) and by her conflicts with other feminist groups and political forces.

Kent gives us a good picture of Victorian political and intellectual life in the first twenty five years of the twentieth century. Paradoxically, Victoria was the last state to grant female suffrage in 1911, and the right to stand for State Parliament in 1923, even though white women had been able to vote in federal elections and stand for Federal Parliament since 1902. Although the first suffrage society in Australia was the Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society in 1884, and despite Victoria’s relatively progressive intellectual life, the Legislative Council was able to stymie women’s suffrage and representation long after South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales had granted it. As a result, Goldstein’s many attempts to stand for Parliament involved federal elections, not state ones.

However, her main base of support was in Victoria, centred on the Book Lovers Library, run by her sister and brother-in-law in the city, and Oxford Chambers at 473-481 Bourke Street which for a while, became “something of a Goldstein compound” where the family members lived and worked. Her two newspapers, the Australian Woman’s Sphere (1900) and the later The Woman Voter (1909) were published in Melbourne.

Second, Kent gives full weight to Goldstein’s spiritual commitment, first to Rev Charles Strong’s Australian Church and then to First Church of Christ, Scientist, which was to remain her lodestar throughout her life. It was a commitment that caused tension with her friend Stella (Miles) Franklin, and it became increasingly important to Goldstein in her later life as a conscious choice in career direction. Perhaps it’s because I too am a Woman of a Certain Age, but I’m increasingly interested in how biographers deal with the latter years of their subject’s life. Kent handles this well, tracing through Goldstein’s contributions to public debate long after she had given up on unsuccessfully standing for Parliament.

Third, Kent’s biography has a lightness of touch that was less evident in Bomford’s more academic book. This is partly because of the parenthesized present-day asides, but also because Kent has a good eye for the visual image and the lively event. I’m not sure, though, that she has moved our understanding of Goldstein forward by much beyond what Bomford had already told us. But through the striking cover, the title with its present-day hook and the engaging writing style, Kent has probably broadened awareness of Vida Goldstein to a wider audience.

My rating: 7.5- maybe 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020.

‘Searching for Charlotte’ by Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell

2020, 304 p.

On a mid-summer day, established Australian authors Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell are in the Queen Elizabeth Hall at Southbank, London. They had planned to meet outside to share a gin and tonic and conversation with Emma Darwin, Charles Darwin’s great great grand-daughter. Emma has written several historical fiction novels, but she has also published This is not a book about Charles Darwin, a hybrid of memoir, family history and fiction. Forced inside by pouring rain, Emma has words of advice for the two sister authors, who were embarking on a similar challenge:

In fiction I am empress of all I survey. I can make up my own rules. I only need make my story seem authentic. The problem with non fiction is that a well-documented archive can be a potential censor…The kind of book you are writing is akin in fiction in many ways, and that means that the inner life can be explored as well as the outer. The interior life is the novelists’ true work.


This book is, as Emma Darwin noted, “akin to fiction”. Or as Kate Forsyth noted “We are taking historical fact and framing it within our own personal lives, creating what might be called a hybrid memoir.” (p.241) I am glad that as authors, they are clear-eyed about what they are doing. This jointly-written book is not a straight biography: instead, like a Who Do You Think You Are? episode, this is just as much about the searchers and the search as it is about the quarry. As in Who Do You Think You Are? there is an emotional attachment through ancestry that draws out empathy, and a degree of identification that arises only because they are family.

In this case, the two authors, who are sisters and each a published author in her own right, feel a particular affinity for their great-great-great-great grandmother, Charlotte Waring Atkinson who wrote the first Australian children’s book A Mother’s Offering to her Children by a lady long resident in New South Wales in 1841. Charlotte’s daughter, Louisa Atkinson, published two books also under the name “an Australian lady”, as well as serialized works, and is recognized as a botanist and illustrator.

But there was more than this professional connection amongst authors set 180 years apart from each other. The story of James Atkinson, early settler and agriculturalist, his marriage to Charlotte, and the construction of the family property ‘Oldbury’ in the Southern Highlands of NSW was part of family lore. Much of the book involves the sisters travelling overseas in a type of investigative pilgrimage, visiting homes, churches and inhaling the spirit of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, whom they mentally link with Charlotte. There is a lot of imagination in this book, but it is clearly identified as such. I must confess to not feeling comfortable with these flights into fiction, but I would have bridled more if they weren’t edged with qualifiers like “perhaps” and “maybe”.

There is an almost innocent transparency about their speculations, even if I find myself balking at them. Historians and biographers weigh evidence all the time, but don’t often show the workings. In the chapter ‘Changing the World’, Kate Forsyth speculates about the possibility that Charles Darwin may have met with Charlotte during his trip to New South Wales. The genealogical origins of the Forsyth/Murrell project are very obvious here. Charles Darwin’s great great grandmother Anne Waring was the third cousin of Charlotte’s great grandfather Richard Waring, making Charles Darwin the 5th cousin once removed of Charlotte – surely a connection that only a genealogist could love. (p144) In family lore, Charles Darwin met with Charlotte in Sydney. However, there is no hard evidence that he did. His diaries are silent about it and the timing for him to ride to Berrima to visit her for just one night is tight. The clues that she offers are just that: clues, based on Darwin’s interest in the Waring family, and his use of Waring as a middle name for a child. Forsyth provides her evidence and holds it up for scrutiny, admitting that it is slight. It is.

Nonetheless, there is considerable research that has gone into the book, although the lack of reference to the footnotes section in the body of the work tends to obscure this. There is rich material here, without needing to be bolstered with the present-day framing narrative. Charlotte came out to Australia with a job lined up as a governess with Hannibal Macarthur, the nephew of John Macarthur and son-in-law of former governor Phillip Gidley King. On board, she met James Atkinson, one of the well known Atkinson brothers who were early settlers in New South Wales. They married, and had four children. Two years after her husband died she remarried, apparently hurriedly, to George Bruce Barton, a man who along with Charlotte suffered a bushranger attack. Forsyth and Murrell struggle to make sense of this hasty marriage to her fellow crime victim. Whatever Charlotte’s motives, it was a poor choice, as the marriage was abusive and they separated. This thrust Charlotte into the public eye as the defendant in a significant court case mounted against the executors of her first husband’s will over Charlotte’s fitness to be appointed guardian to her children (see Atkinson v Barton). She received a sympathetic hearing from Chief Justice Dowling and was granted guardianship (had my own Justice John Walpole Willis still been in Sydney at the time, I do wonder if she would have received the same outcome). Disapprobation attached to a remarried and separated woman fronting the courts against the highly respectable executors of the will, and it may have been this need for anonymity as well as income, that led her to write her book for children under the coy nom de plume “a lady long resident in New South Wales”.

Kate Forsyth contributes several chapters discussing A Mother’s Offering, taking it largely on its own merits and within the context of Australian literature. In fact, the question-and-answer format within a framing domestic story occurs in other settings across the empire in the mid 19th century as well. For example, here I reviewed Tales of a Grandmother by Mrs. A. Carmicheal, based on stories of St Vincent in the West Indies, published at exactly the same time- 1841- and also dealing with plant life, climate and geography, as well as the benefits of slavery. For many years the identity of the “lady long resident in New South Wales” was thought to be Lady Gordon Bremer until booklover and bibliographer Marcie Muir identified Charlotte as the author in 1980. Patricia Clarke’s biography Pioneer Writer: The Life of Louisa Atkinson, Novelist, Journalist, Naturalist publicized Muir’s discovery even further.

Forsyth reads A Mother’s Offering closely, noting Charlotte’s excursions into paleontology, mineralogy, conchology and cetology (p.243). She winces at Charlotte’s depictions of indigenous people and the imperial bombast of stories of shipwrecks and the death of “little Sally the black child”. She moves beyond A Mother’s Offering to examine P.P’s tales, mentioned briefly in a newspaper advertisement and which she suspects may be Amusing and Instructive Tales by Peter Prattle, reviewed in 1837 but given as a gift in 1832. A second Peter Prattle book Instructive Tales by Peter Prattle was listed as a ‘new publication’ in British newspapers in 1842. The evidence for Charlotte’s authorship of these other two books is, as Forsyth admits “circumstantial evidence, but suggestive nonetheless”(p.271). The book has been generously illustrated with colour plates from Charlotte’s sketchbook, showing her skill in drawing plants, birds and insects.

But Charlotte’s story is only one aspect of this book. Like Kate Grenville’s Searching for the Secret River, it is the story of a search. It is also the family story of two sisters who have their own careers as authors, and as such, it is also story about writing, both in the 1840s and in the 2020s. Their childhoods, their parents, unexpected family secrets and their responsibilities as part of the ‘sandwich generation’ between children and elderly parents are also interwoven into their search for Charlotte.

Ten of the chapters are written by Belinda, particularly at the start of the book, and eight by Kate. The chapters blend together fairly seamlessly, and I was not particularly aware whether I was reading a Belinda chapter or a Kate chapter. There are, for me, too many descriptions of food and sightseeing and at times it reads like a travel diary. Just like the television program Who Do You Think You Are? the search, and not just the discovery, becomes the story.

I think that a reader’s response to this book will depend heavily on how strictly they interpret the ‘rules’ of biography. For myself, I found the present-day family history rather unnecessary, the imaginative writing superfluous and the speculation unstable. However, for other readers I’m sure that the humanizing and integration of the past and present would have a strong appeal. The authors claimed to be taking historical facts and framing them within their own personal lives. That’s exactly what they have done.

Source: Review copy from NLA via Quikmark media

I have included this on the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 9-16 October 2020

Conversations (ABC) I’ve just finished reading William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy and so I listened to Richard Fidler interviewing him on Conversations in a program called ‘William Dalrymple on the ruthless rise of the British East India Company‘. This conversation was more topical than the book itself, which is largely based on history, drawing parallels with current day corporations and the East India Company.

Heather Cox Richardson Although I’m running behind on HCR’s History chats, I’m right up to date with her History and Politics chats because so much is happening in America at the moment. This week she missed her History and Politics chat on the Tuesday, so she moved it to the Thursday instead. So on Thursday 16 October she gave a review of the American constitution and the respective roles of the Congress, Executive and Supreme Court. She comes right out and says that if Trump wins, that will be the end of Democracy in the United States. She predicts a period of violence in the wake of the election result no matter what happens. I just can’t believe that America has ended up here.

In her History chat of 17 September she picks up with George W. Bush’s presidency after the contested ballot of 2000. Now that the USSR had splintered there was no Manichean ‘baddies’ any more, so in effect that had to create them. She picks up on the comment of ‘a senior advisor to Bush’ to Ron Suskind “We’re an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality. And while you are studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” She goes on to talk about 9/11, Iraq, the Weapons of Mass Destruction, Hurricane Katrina, the Global Financial Crisis etc. etc. In 2008 McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, thus further embedding Movement Conservatism into the Republican Party. When Barak Obama was elected, he was everything that Movement Conservatives hated, and it is here that you can see the planting of the tropes that Trump is pushing now: ‘voter fraud’, ‘socialism’ ‘UnAmericanism’.

The History Listen (ABC) Spies, Lies and Hairdryers is the story of Kay Marshall, who became an ASIO double agent during the Cold War, who became involved in the Skripov Affair (which I’d never heard of). She seemed so ordinary, and yet there she was hanging around Taronga Park zoo, with a copy of the Age in her hand, waiting to meet with a Soviet spy.

MOOCing around during lockdown

We’ve been locked down here in Melbourne for fifteen weeks, which in anyone’s language is a bloody long time. Not one for jigsaw puzzles, and already a regular bread baker, I turned instead to a few online courses, mostly through FutureLearn. I must confess that I’m pretty slack. I rarely engage in the discussions, and I never do the assessments.

Since the lockdown, I have completed Radical Spirituality: The Early History of the Quakers, which is no longer running. It was run jointly by Lancaster University & Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre and it is a historical examination of the birth of Quakerism in the 1650s in England, the role of George Fox and Margaret Fell, and the rather peripatetic nature of Quakerism in its early days.

I also did a course called The Scottish Highland Clans: Origins, Decline and Transformation but to be honest, I can’t remember whether than was this year or last year…a COVID shutdown does that, I guess. It ran from the University of Glasgow over a period of three weeks. You can join it at any time.

And just now, I have finished Empire, run through the University of Exeter. It was a six week course, and the University of Exeter also runs the Imperial and Global Forum online, so there is an ongoing presence of the historians involved in the course. The course concentrates on the British Empire in particular, and as a citizen of a ‘colonized’ country, it was interesting to see empire from the other end. The course has run several times, and at the end of the first iteration that created ‘summing up’ videos to review the comments left by students. Although the comments between one course and another are probably much the same, you did feel a bit recycled. Having read a couple of books about British imperialism in India recently, I really enjoyed the discussion of Mary Curzon’s Peacock Dress.

Next stop is a course on Slavery in the British Caribbean, which I have read about as part of my thesis. It will be interesting to look at it in a more structured way. So, ever onwards……

‘Up Came a Squatter: Niel Black of Glenormiston 1839-1880’ by Maggie Black

2016, 292 p. plus notes

The term ‘squatter’ has had different connotations over time. In the 1980s it suggested young people living in empty houses. In the song ‘Waltzing Matilda’, written in 1895, we had the squatter riding up mounted on his thoroughbred, accompanied by the troopers. And even further before that, in early 1840s Port Phillip we had squatters who were often young single men from wealthy families, who went up country, lived rough in huts, grew beards and came back to Melbourne to drink and carouse before heading back outback again. Generally, the squatters have had bad press in Australian history, seen as selfish landgrabbers, oblivious to the destruction of indigenous culture on the land they had appropriated, keeping the little man off the land, and using their power in the Legislative Council to protect their interests.

Much of the celebration of squatters has sprung from familial and parochial pride at our ‘forebears’: men celebrated by their families for establishing the family wealth, and communities grateful for the extensive but often patriarchal contribution made by squatters as civic characters. As Tom Griffiths showed us in his excellent Hunters and Collectors, these tributes to great men, which spawned books and statues (e.g. the 1920s cairns to the squatter Angus McMillan in Gippsland) were particularly created in the late 19th and early 20th century when it was felt that ‘the pioneers’ were passing away. Consciously framed as celebrations, the inconvenient matter of expropriation and massacre was framed as ‘clearing’ and ‘dispersal’. Even Margaret Kiddle’s beautifully written Men of Yesterday, which I discussed here, is silent about the indigenous groups that most certainly lived in, and fought for, the Western Districts of Victoria.

And so enter Niel Black. A 35 year old tenant farmer from Argyllshire, Scotland, he arrived in Melbourne 1839 as part of a Scots-based syndicate that aimed at taking leasing land, raising sheep, selling the wool, making money and then getting out and heading back ‘home’. One of the striking things about this book is its demonstration of Scottish capitalism at work. The sleeping partners of the syndicate back in Scotland wanted their dividends from their investment and were less interested in buying up land to create one unified landholding. But Niel Black, being the partner on the spot, increasingly saw things differently, developing a desire for his land after living and working here and becoming involved in politics to maintain squatter primacy in Victoria.

Black was very much in the ‘improving’ mindset, and fits in well with the descriptions of Scots Presbyterians who established early churches in the Port Phillip area that I read last year. He brought his own farmworkers with him, and maintained an interest in Scots-based emigration schemes that provided indentured labour to work on pastoral properties. In this, he adopted a patriarchal stance, but was happy to support good workers who established their own properties.

Writing about an early pastoralist inevitably raises questions about the relationship between the squatter and the indigenous people that he displaced. By moving into the Western District, Black was shifting to an area where there was a great deal of settler/aborigine conflict. He was keen to buy land that had already been ‘pacified’ and ‘cleared’ of aborigines because of his discomfort with the violence that new settlement entailed. At first he seems to be relatively critical of the harsh treatment of these “poor ignorant” creatures, and adopted a frighten-away policy of galloping after them or discharging his gun in the air when they encroached onto his land. However, over time, he became more sympathetic to settlers who had ‘clashed’ with aborigines, including the Whyte brothers who perpetrated a massacre near Wando Vale in March 1840, and was himself involved in a posse searching for those responsible for the death of a shepherd on an adjoining run. Gradually he joined in the general disparagement of ‘blacks’ and late 1842 he joined in the squatters’ criticism of La Trobe’s inactivity. Like many squatters, he felt that the Aboriginal Protectorate was a misguided, incompetent scheme, but he had quite good relations with Protector Charles Sievwright, even though many others did not.

Instead, most of his clashes occurred with either the Commissioner for Crown Lands Foster Fyans, or with neighbouring squatters. Particularly once the government began passing legislation forcing squatters to pay for some of their land, he was often reluctantly engaged in the same shady practices as other squatters in trying to gain control of contiguous expanses of land. This drive to consolidate land holdings was not understood or supported by some of his Scotland-based partners, and a breakdown in the relations with one of the partners in particular forced him to abandon his home to shift to another subdivision of the run where he built another, grander, home. It was largely to protect his holdings that he went into politics, but he seemed to be a rather diffident politician, operating behind the scenes but not publicly prominent. Lobby groups are always unlovely when you look at them close up, and the squatter lobby is no exception. Maggie Black is clear-eyed about the anti-democratic tendencies of this group of men acting politically in their own interests.

His story demonstrates the mobility of wealthy settlers who, even while achieving prominence in the colony, still viewed the UK as ‘home’. Black journeyed ‘home’ twice in search of a wife, and his business interests with his partners kept him financially tethered to Scotland, even though his wealth was entirely accrued in Victoria. His partners were happy to send their sons out to Glenormiston for the pastoral experience, and his nephew Archie, sent across from Scotland after his father suffered from mental illness, became a trusted, but later embittered, fellow squatter.

Niel Black wrote journals and voluminous letters – particularly to his business partner T.S. Gladstone, and these have been drawn upon heavily by historians of the Western District. They were all very nearly lost to history during the paper shortages of WWII, but were squirrelled away and later shown to Margaret Kiddle when she was researching for her Men of Yesterday. The wealth of his writing has enabled Maggie Black to write a well-rounded biography that makes explicable the convoluted Selection Acts legislation that tried to curb the power of the squatters. In his writings we see the mechanics of imperial – in this case Scottish – capitalism at play, and the emotional tensions that emerged when finance, family and competitive pressures made their demands.

Niel Black has had not one but two moments in the sun during the 2000s. There is this book, published in 2016 by Niel Black’s great-granddaughter, and an earlier book Strangers in a Foreign Land released eight years earlier, based on Black’s journal and other voices from the Western District, written by Maggie MacKellar. (I will confess to wondering at one stage if they were both the same author using different surnames, but this is not the case). I know that an erstwhile reader of this blog, Kevin Brewer, has been working on Niel Black for some time and he is acknowledged in Maggie Black’s book.

In the wake of the conflict with his former partners, the Glenormiston holding was split up between them, and lots were drawn for the different portions. Although his house was on the other section, Black had to settle for the Mount Noorat section, and after living for some time in Melbourne, in 1875 he decided to build a grand house that even he acknowledged would be “the crowning folly of my life”. The 38-room, two-storey, stuccoed Italianate mansion, which took years to construct, was better suited for a town, rather than a pastoral estate in the Western District. He was to live in it for only two years before his death in 1880. Despite its grandeur, it was demolished in the early 1940s – a life shorter than that of its builder.

Niel Black lives on through his journal and letters, never intended as public documents, that draw and inspire historians – particularly the three Margaret/Maggies (Kiddle, MacKellar and Black)- to write so beautifully about him, and in the case of the MacKellar and Black books, to be able to contextualize him in the light of later historiography.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 October 2020

Heather Cox Richardson. As a matter of course, HCR always asks for questions before her History and Politics Chat on Tuesdays. On 6th October she received over 2000 questions! She started off by talking about the importance of not letting Trump control the conversation, which he certainly has been doing since being diagnosed with COVID. She said that Trump is taking up where Joseph McCarthy left off- a politician can blatantly lie, knowing that the lie will be reported, and that newspapers will print the lie because it is news. She also talked about voter suppression and the history of the Secret Service.

In her History of the Republican Party podcast of September 10, she looks at the election of 2000 that brought us George W. Bush (along with its hanging chads) and September 11. Ah- the irony of the Republican Party claiming that only the Republican Party could keep America safe from terrorists, when September 11 occurred on their watch (not unlike Trump now claiming that he is the Law and Order President when violence is occurring under his administration.) It was here that the practice of governing by ideology began, and the use of signing statements and evocation of a world other than the reality-based world took root.

America If You’re Listening. How Trump widened racial divides for political gain looks at Trump’s long history of racism. He took after his father Fred in his racism, and don’t forget his active role with the Central Park Five. Then there’s the AltR, and Charlottesville, and Black Lives Matter….

Women and Evacuation in the Second World War. This podcast comes from the excellent History West Midland website, which looks to have some really interesting material. In the four-part episode I listened to, historian Maggie Andrews talks about her 2019 book Women and Evacuation in the Second World War. We all have the mental picture of the children standing with their little cases, waiting to be evacuated, but this book looks at the experience of the mothers who packed those little cases; those who accompanied their children and those women who acted as foster mothers. Episode 1 Introduction to Evacuation sets the scene. The evacuation program was set into train even before war was declared, with a great deal of upfront planning that all fell apart completely when it was actually implemented. Then came the ‘phoney war’ war, when nothing happened and by Christmas, many of the children had returned to their homes. Then when the bombing started in earnest, there was a rush of evacuation, much of it initiated and arranged privately. Once the war was over, some children arrived home fairly quickly, others took months if not years. Some never returned home. Episode 2 Mothers Who Waved Goodbye had me in tears while striding around the park. The idea of a mother whose six children were being sent to six different homes cutting up her only towel into six (useless) pieces just seemed too sad. Episode 3 The Mothers Who Accompanied Their Children looks at the women who, in the first wave, accompanied their children as part of the school evacuation, and then when the bombing started, fled with their children hoping to find private accommodation in the country. Episode 4 Foster Mothers takes the other perspective: that of women who had their lives turned upside down by children, sometimes accompanied by their mothers, who came into their family homes. This is a really interesting, emotionally affecting series of podcasts about another time when people were told “we’re all in this together”, even though they weren’t. [I was tempted to get the book until I saw the price. I’m always disappointed when a book is published by academic publishers, who obviously think that only university libraries are likely to purchase it. But – oh good- the State Library of Victoria has it as an ebook.]

‘All the King’s Men’ by Robert Penn Warren

1946, [reprint 1974], 479 p.

You have to hand it to New English Library publications – they have the most hideous covers. (I’m not the only one who thinks this: check out this posting on ‘Risque and Exploitative New English Library Covers from the 1960s and 70s‘. I now realize that the cover of this book is positively tasteful in comparison.) There are many other editions of this Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, originally published in 1946, but it was republished ‘Complete and Unabridged’ for a British readership in 1974. I’ve had in on my shelf for years and no doubt picked it up at some fete or something, having seen it mentioned on several people’s lists of ‘Great American Novels’ or suchlike. I really had no idea what it was about

From the blurb on the back, and the 1974 introduction, I learned that it was loosely based on Huey Long, who was planning on challenging Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Presidency in 1936, but was gunned down by an assassin the year before. I had heard mention of Huey Long in passing, in one of the excellent Heather Cox Richardson’s history chats, but I only knew him as a corrupt populist. I resisted the temptation to Google him, and I’m glad that I did, because I just took this book on its own merits.

The Huey Long character in this book is Willie Stark, a man who starts off as a small-town ‘squeaky wheel’ agitating for a straight deal to build a new schoolhouse in his town. He ends up Mason County City Treasurer, and it’s at this point that he meets Jack Burden, a journalist for the local Chronicle newspaper. Burden is a failed PhD candidate, brought up in the small town named for his family, Burden’s Landing. Burden starts following Stark’s career, as he takes on the entrenched political machine. At first Stark is unsuccessful and used as a pawn in other people’s political machinations. He is a poor public speaker, too focussed on facts. Burden gives him some off-the-cuff advice and Willie Stark, the populist politician and political boss is born.

Burden believes that he can be just a disinterested observer, like the historian he aspired to be, but he finds himself drawn into Stark’s orbit. When Stark asks him to ‘find some dirt’ on Judge Irwin, an older family friend from Jack’s hometown Burden Landing, Jack complies, although at first he holds on to the information that he uncovers. Jack’s childhood friends Anne and Adam Stanton are also drawn into Willie Stark’s machinations, and it is the compromises that Jack asks them to make at Willie’s behest, that leads to the climax of the novel.

This is a novel just as much about Jack Burden as narrator as it is about Willie Stark, the ostensible main character. It is about populism, power and political games, and I can well see why so many people have seen parallels with Trump, another populist ‘outsider’ to Washington. It’s also about history and personal choice, ethics and compromise. It reminded me a little of The Great Gatsby, with its narrator off to the side as Nick Carraway is, and also of Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory in its exploration of politics and power.

It really is beautifully written. Warren is a confident author, with convoluted but always controlled sentences and an incisive eye. How about his description of a man who has just been shafted by Willie Stark? “[His eyes] were as numb and expressionless as a brace of gray oysters on the half shell”.(P. 155) [I shall not look at oysters the same way again!]

The book was written in 1946, echoing events which had occurred ten years earlier, so it was a contemporary book that, for us as 21st century readers, is set in an earlier time. As a contemporary author, however, Warren feels no need to set up the stage as in a historical fiction. It is jolting, however, to encounter the frequent and unembarrassed use of n—– and an insouciant racism that would disqualify it instantly as a school text.

Because, surprisingly, that’s what it has been. My hideously-covered book belonged to ‘A Major’ of 6C, (Form 6 later became Yr 12), and from his/her notes at the front, the book was obviously read. It is 479 pages of very dense print, and I just can’t imagine that you would ask any 17 year old to read it today, notwithstanding the racist language.

This was the ‘complete and unabridged’ version. The earlier version, for American readers, omitted a long chapter about Jack Burden’s PhD thesis. Even though if found it personally interesting, the book would not have suffered from its omission.

I can see why this book has appeared on ‘100 Best American Novel’ lists. It is well written, it has a complex chronological structure, and it carries its dual main-character nature well. It might have sat on my bookshelf for years, but it was well worth keeping and reading.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: My own bookshelves!

‘See What You Made Me Do’ by Jess Hill

2019, 416 p.

On February 12, 2014 a woman stood in her driveway, raw with grief and changed Australia’s mind about domestic abuse. Her 11 year old son had just been killed by his father. She had been warning for years that her former partner was a danger to her son and now her fears had been realized. Family violence can happen to anyone, she said, irrespective of how nice your house is, or how intelligent you are.

Jess Hill pinpoints this moment as when Australia began to listen. It was not that there had been no debate previously: Heather Osland’s imprisonment for murdering her abusive husband had caused controversy; Julie Ramage was the face of the middle class victim of domestic abuse, and there have been countless other terrible cases where the partner and/or children were murdered, often with the suicide of the perpetrator. But somehow Rosie Batty’s articulate composure in the midst of horror made the whole country listen.

Hill’s book explores domestic abuse in Australia today and she carefully identifies it as domestic abuse rather than domestic violence, because often coercive control is subtle and non-physical. But coercive control has many common features as if, as she says, there was a perpetrator’s handbook. Although the focus of her book is on male abuse of their intimate partners, she also addresses the violence of women, although noting that even though male victims fear the consequences of their abuser’s actions, they are not usually in physical fear of their lives. She looks at the effect on children, as well as on parents. One chapter near the end addresses the issue of domestic abuse within indigenous communities and the many indigenous women who have spoken out against it.

It’s a fairly analytic book, especially in the early chapters, where she sets up dichotomies, interspersed with individual stories, often given under a pseudonym. There’s a narrow line to be drawn here: honoring the story and the woman who has entrusted it to her; showing complexity; and yet not presenting a cavalcade of narratives. There is also a fine legal line that she needs to tread, to avoid identification of children. For the male perspective, she relied mainly on court documents and affidavits.

Those legal and ethical writing considerations notwithstanding, I must confess that for much of the book, I felt as if I were reading an extended Saturday newspaper article or a Quarterly Essay. I don’t know whether it was the book, or whether it was me, but it seemed to really tighten up with the chapter looking at the legal system and the perverse outcomes that have arisen from legislation to amend the Family Court, especially during the Howard years, in response to men’s rights groups. ‘Parental Alienation Syndrome’ was a thinly-researched argument which resulted in women (especially) acquiescing in arrangements that their children were baulking against, lest she be designated the hostile party and be banned from seeing the children at all. I was reading this book while the newspapers were reporting the Coroner’s inquest into John Edwards’ murder-suicide of his two children, Jack and Jennifer, and his wife Olga’s later suicide. It was like watching Hill’s description of the perversity of the court system and the power of the independent lawyer appointed to represent the children’s interests being brought to life.

She closes the book with a critique of the Federal Government’s domestic abuse strategy and its wishy-washy targets which look at attitudes and systems but not the most telling and easily computed statistic of all: that of the number of women killed by intimate partners. And lest it all seem too hard, she identifies policing strategies that have worked, although her North Carolina community-justice approach made me just a bit uncomfortable about public shaming. Shame, Hill argues at the start of the book, is what turns impotence into omnipotence and I do wonder about a causal factor being used as the corrective.

This book won the Stella Prize for 2020. The prize has gone to Non-fiction previously. The winner in 2019 was a memoir with The Erratics; Alexis Wright won it with a biography with Alexis Wright’s Tracker in 2018, and in 2014 Clare Wright received the Stella Prize for The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka.) The Stella Prize website describes itself as “a major literary award celebrating Australian women’s writing, and an organisation that champions cultural change.” I do find myself wondering, though, whether this book received the prize more for the second part of the mission statement than the first. The writing is clear and analytic and it integrates policy and personal narrative. But is it ‘literary’? (whatever ‘literary’ means). I think I’d be looking for an unusual structure, or an imaginative approach, or vivid imagery – something more than ‘investigative journalism’. I don’t deny that the book is important, both in its breadth and its analysis, and its emphasis on domestic ‘abuse’ as distinct from ‘violence’ it may well have shifted the conversation. But I guess that’s my problem – that it’s part of a conversation- rather than a distinctive and imaginative voice that somehow soars above the hubbub.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: ebook from Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 25-30 September

Heather Cox Richardson. In the relative tranquility before the Presidential debate shitstorm, on 29 September Heather answered questions about the Supreme Court which, interestingly, up to Susan Day O’Connor always had someone sitting who was not a judge. Amy Coney Barrett is an originalist- someone who believes that the constitution cannot be changed and who rejects judicial activism. There was also a question about the First Amendment and lying, and she finishes off with the question “How do we heal?” which she answers by looking at other times in America’s history when society was similarly riven.

Her History of the Republican Party of 3rd September Part 14 looks at the history of the Clinton years, from the perspective of the Republicans. She follows through with the Movement Conservatives, who were disappointed with George H. W. Bush and who were horrified by Bill Clinton. She does quite a bit of editorializing in this episodes, I guess because it’s coming into living history.

America If You’re Listening (ABC). The last two episodes of this analysis of Trump’s first (oh, please let it be his last) term of office credited him somewhat in at least standing up initially to the NRA and not starting any wars. But in How Saudi Arabia Found an Ally in the White House there’s nothing redeeming at all in Saudi Arabia’s cultivation of Jared Kushner and Trump himself.

Conversations (ABC) Tracking the trial of a Mississippi murder is an older episode from 2013 where John Safran talks about his book Murder in Mississippi which I reviewed here. Listening to the podcast is quicker than reading the book.

My very own little socially distanced Spanish Film Festival #2

Well, it’s the 11th and so that’s the end of the Instituto Cervantes Festival Pelikula 2020. Not quite the same experience as being at the cinema but certainly very socially distanced. So distanced in fact, that I was all on my tod.

  1. El Cuadro. This is a documentary about the Velázquez painting ‘Las Meninas’. It is, in effect, a talking-heads documentary, with the reflections of various art-historians and curators (both Spanish and American) discussing this famous painting. It is divided into different chapters, interspersed with puppet images. It is a very imaginative and engaging way of presenting a documentary about a picture which, let’s face it, doesn’t have a lot of action as such. Certainly, you’ll see much more in ‘Las Meninas’ after viewing this documentary. Sorry- no English subtitles in the trailer.

2. Mudar la piel. Another documentary, produced by the daughter of the real life Juan Gutiérrez who acted as a secret mediator between ETA and the Spanish Government. Juan was assisted by Roberto, who ended up being exposed as a Secret Service spy after he betrayed his friend Juan and his role in the negotiations. Now his daughter Ana wants to make a documentary about the reunion of the two men, which her father agreed to – surely only out of love for his daughter- but which Roberto had qualms about. No wonder. I found myself becoming really annoyed at the naivete and intrusiveness of the daughter. I read Berta Isla recently, which was also about the ‘back story’ of a spy, and it seems to me that no-one in the secret service, even one who had ‘gone rogue’ as Roberto did, would ever agree to this documentary.

3. Asamblea. A satire of a very earnest group of people who meet together to ratify a decision (never explained) that is about to go to the Board (likewise never explained). The facilitator is very keen to get it approved, but the group resists, unwilling to rubber stamp a decision that will be made without their consent anyway. It’s like every deadly, politically correct, jargon-laden meeting that you have ever endured.

4. Arima. I’m not sure that I really know what happened here, but there is a group of women living in a small Spanish village whose lives are disrupted by two (?) strangers. A single mother lives with her daughter, who keeps running away and saying that she sees a ghost. The single mother becomes involved with a man, David, who is new to the village, who may or may not be a member of what seems to be a strange sex club. He seems to spend a lot of time running around in the dark with a gun and two savage dogs- or is that the other man? Or are they the same man? Meanwhile, the daughter is often minded by another woman, whose brother disappeared in the forest years ago, and who seems to be haunted by him. I have no idea what it all means, but it was very atmospheric and rather scary.

I really enjoyed my little Spanish Film Festival, even though all of the subtitles were in English which didn’t benefit my Spanish much. Can’t say I understood all the films, but I enjoyed the experience.