Daily Archives: February 6, 2021

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ to…

Once again, I have not read the book that starts off the Six Degrees of Separation meme on the first Saturday of each month. You can read the ‘rules’ for Six Degrees of Separation on Kate’s Books are my Favourite and Best website. This month the starting book was Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road.

I might not have read this particular Anne Tyler book but I have read several others. Before starting this blog I would have nominated her as one of my favourite authors, but I think that after a few books I had begun to tire of the Americanness and everyday-lifeness of her books (I don’t know if either of those words exist!) and I haven’t read anything of hers in the last ten years. I know that I really enjoyed Ladder of Years, where the middle-aged female main character decides to just walk out on her family, adopt a new identity and start a new, stripped-down life. Perhaps my enjoyment of this book says more about me as a middle-aged female reader, than the book.

Someone working as an undercover agent would be adopting new identities all the time, I should imagine. But what happens to the family they leave behind? Berta Isla by Javier Mariás explores the scenario of a wife whose husband disappears ‘on business’ for increasingly lengthy periods of time.

If you say “spy” to an Australian, probably the first names that will occur to them are those of Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov (in fact, there’s a good chance that the Petrovs will be the only names that most Australians will be familiar with). The image of Evdokia Petrov being manhandled along the tarmac to an aeroplane is one of the iconic images of the 1950s. Andrew Croome has fictionalized the Petrov Affair in his Document Z.

Prime Minister Robert Menzies was able to take advantage of the Petrov Affair during the 1954 election campaign- a timing which many thought was too convenient. I grew up during the 1960s believing that Robert Menzies was the only possible Prime Minister: a bit like the Queen, he just was. Judith Brett wrote an excellent biography of Menzies and the middle class in the post-war years in Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, which I read prior to staring this blog.

Another historian who captured twentieth century Melbourne middle class life very well is Janet McCalman in Journeyings: The Biography of a Middle Class Generation 1920-1990. She takes as her narrative vehicle (literally) the No. 69 tram travelling from Carlisle St St Kilda to Cotham Road Kew, picking up the students of four private schools: Scotch, Trinity, Genazzano and MLC (Methodist Ladies College) and traces the experience of middle class, Melbourne life in the suburbs through which the No. 69 travels.

The other major denominational rival to MLC was Presbyterian Ladies College, whose most famous alumni is Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson, better known by her nom-de-plume Henry Handel Richardson. She famously wrote about her school days in The Getting of Wisdom, but I much preferred her wonderful three-part work The Fortunes of Richard Mahony which is probably one of my favourite Australian novels.

Hah! Four Australian books this time- and three of them by women!