Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

‘Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence’ by Doris Pilkington (Nugi Garmimara)

pilkington_rabbit

1996, 135P.

Am I the only person in Australia who has not read ‘Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence’ or seen the movie? I suspect that I am.

First published in 1996, reprinted in 2000 and released as a movie in 2002, it is the story of Molly (14), Daisy (11) and Grace (8) who were forcibly removed from their families and taken to Moore River Native Settlement in 1931. The three girls escaped and walked home 1600 km in three months through the West Australian desert, orienting themselves in the huge expanse by following the rabbit-proof fence, a long fence intended to stop rabbits from entering the West Australian pastoral district.

Doris Pilkington is Molly’s daughter, but she knew little of her mother’s history until her aunt told her. Pilkington, like her mother and aunt, was also part of the Stolen Generation. She, too, ended up at that same Moore River, having been separated from her mother Molly at the age of four, and not seeing her again for more than twenty years. She didn’t learn the story of her mother and aunt’s escape for another ten years after that. (You can read more about the writing of the book here).

I was surprised that much of the book was history- it took up to p. 75 (in a 135 page book) for the girls to escape.  This history started with white invasion, tribal leader Kundilla (I’m not sure whether he was a historical figure or a narrative device); whalers; Swan River; and the decline of Aboriginal society.  She emphasizes the Mardudjara people as the traditional owners when white settlers brought their cattle, and describes the ‘coming in’ to the stations. Her focus is particularly  Jigalong station between 1917-1931. I was reminded here of Ann McGrath’s 1987 history Born in the Cattle which provides a nuanced account of Aboriginal cattle workers, the texture of station life, and the symbiotic relationship between pastoralists and workers.

From p. 75 on, the story fits into a more familiar ‘Voyage and Return’ narrative. Once the girls have started on their trek, she uses historical documents to support her narrative e.g. the correspondence of A. O. Neville (Protector of Aborigines) and copies of telegrams that criss-crossed W.A. The girls are by no means lost: they know where they are, and so do many other people in the homesteads, who offer them hospitality and then go on to report them to the Protector. In the end, the bureaucratic decision is made that it would be too expensive to retrieve them, and they are just let go.

In many ways, the postscript is most damning. Molly, along with her two daughters, was sent again to Moore River. She absconded again taking her 18 month old daughter and leaving Doris  behind. She retraced the walk that she did nine years earlier to return to Jigalong, only to lose her remaining daughter as well, when she was taken by the authorities. Both Daisy and Gracie would have been viewed as ‘successes’ under the assimilation policy of the time. Both married and were employed as domestic help. Daisy ended up moving to a Seventh Day Adventist Mission after her husband’s death.

This book has been a favourite on school reading lists for many years. Larissa Behrendt has written an essay for this school audience, which raises some interesting points.

I imagined that this book would be more emotional and angry than it is. The front-loading of history at the start of the story does make it somewhat abstract, and there is a flatness in the telling that I didn’t expect. I’m sure that on the screen, the landscape would be stark and featureless, but in the book more emphasis is placed on how Molly ‘reads’ the country, rather than on what it lacks. I look at some of the blurbs for later editions and the movie, which highlight ‘adventure’ and ‘courage’. These things are here in the book, but so too is unspoken love and knowledge for country, a quiet and stubborn determination, and a slow-burning injustice.

My rating: 7/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup choice.

AWW2019

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge database.

 

‘Her Mother’s Daughter’ by Nadia Wheatley

Wheatley_Mothers_Daughter

2018, 352 p.

I’ll be honest: I don’t really like the ‘parental memoir’ books, even though I seem to keep reading them.  You know the ones I mean, where a child (often already an established writer) writes the biography of one of their parents, interweaving it with their own memoir and ‘journey’ in trying to understand their parent/s. I’ve read my share of them, historian Jim Davidson writing about his father; Biff Ward writing about her historian father and his wife; Catherine de Saint Phalle writing about her Parisian parents Poum and Alexandre; Marie Munkara writing from the point of view of a member of the Stolen Generations re-discovering her family; Anne Summers writing about her mother and a painting, and Magda Szubanski writing about her family and coming out.

That’s a lot of books for a genre that I’ve said I don’t like. I am uncomfortable with the stripping-bare of a parent who cannot defend their actions, and I dislike the sense of long-held grievance that often permeates a child’s judgement of their parent, no mater how long ago these childhood events occurred.

So why, then, did I read this ‘parental memoir’? I think it’s probably because I admire Nadia Wheatley as a biographer through her excellent biography of Charmian Clift The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift and I was interested to see how a professional biographer/historian deals with the problem of writing a hybrid biography/memoir. [It was this methodological curiosity that led me to read Davidson and Summers, and will probably lead me to Jill Roe and Brenda Niall one day.] More immediately, it was as a response to reading excellent reviews by Jonathan Shaw and Sue at Whispering Gums.

The title of Wheatley’s book Her Mother’s Daughter is an act of claiming back her relationship with her mother. She was told by family that because she was only nine when her mother died, she couldn’t possibly remember her. Besides, she was told, her mother would have hated her Leftist policies. It was in reconstructing her mother’s life as an adult, from what people told her about her mother, and drawing on her own memories written at the time of her mother’s death in a valiant attempt to stop them dissipating (surely the act of a future writer and biographer!) that she realized that her mother would not have rejected her because of her politics and that she was, indeed, more of her mother’s daughter than her wider family recognized.  The choice of title is also an act of distancing herself from her father, to whom she was often likened, and with whom she had a fearful, strained relationship. His behaviour, as her research proved, was even darker than she realized as a child.

The book is written in four parts. The first section ‘Neen’ tells of the early life of Wheatley’s mother Nina Whatley, born in 1906 in northern NSW, whose own mother died while Nina was young. Her life seemed destined to end in nursing her much-loved elderly father and her less-loved stepmother, but World War II was her escape, when she enrolled as a nurse and worked with the 6th A.G.H. in Greece and Palestine. After the war she worked in refugee camps with Displaced Persons with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, taking up a position of responsibility that saw her nicknamed “Miss UNRRA”.

It was in these camps that she met the English doctor, Dr (John) Norman Wheatley, as described in Part II ‘Nina and John’. Dr Wheatley was married (although separated) at the time, and unknown to Nina he had a darker side that manifested itself through his alter ego ‘Mr Black’, a legal identity that he used for gambling, dodgy enterprises, affairs.  Already here as a reader you sense the perils for Nina in finally marrying Dr Wheatley. Their affair, while it was clandestine and without responsibilities, filled their weekends with liaisons, parties and travel. When Neen unexpectedly fell pregnant, he did not welcome the child, and Neen returned home to Australia to have her child.

Part III ‘Nina, John and Nadia’ is the longest section of the book, and it conveys well the anxiety evoked in this little girl by her father’s capricious, heedless and manipulative behaviour. They shift from one house to another as her father’s enterprises turn sour. Her sardonic father plays mind-games with both mother and daughter, with his menacing repetitions “do you understand?” when telling or showing Nadia aberrant  anecdotes and images. When Neen complains of chest pain, he ignores her, dismissing the pain as psychosomatic, a diagnosis too easily conveyed and shared amongst the male-dominated psychiatric fraternity. It was a dismissal that probably robbed Neen of years of health.

In the final Part IV, after Neen’s death, Nadia goes into the care of a school friend’s family; a paid arrangement she later learns, and one where she is vulnerable. The relationship with her father, already brittle, petered out.

Looking over this summary, there’s not a lot of joy here. Disappointments and betrayals, when they occur, seem inevitable. Yet, the book does not have the howl of grievance that too many parental memoirs have, perhaps because Wheatley’s intent is to recover her mother in order to identify with her, instead of to judge. The judgement is directed towards her father instead.

There is a narrative distance between Wheatley the author and Wheatley the character, and I think it is this detachment and – is ‘professionalism’ the word?- that makes this book a work of biographical reconstruction as much as memoir.  Most of it is written in the third person, but occasionally Nadia Wheatley the adult biographer breaks into the narrative, commenting on information that she has uncovered, responding with scepticism, regret or shame (as when she realizes that Neen’s inheritance of the family home had caused such resentment in the family). Wheatley has brought her biographer’s eye to her own family, contextualizing it within the mores and expectations of the time, filling in background information about the refugee schemes after WWII and psychiatric medicine during the 1950s, particularly in relation to women. She is explicit about her sources – her mother’s letters (often quoted verbatim), interviews and conversations with family members,  discussions with people who knew Neen – as a way of testing her own reality and memory against those of other people. Although the structure of the book is mainly chronological, it skips back and forth, shifting between third and first person. It is a deft book, written with confidence. Its emotional tone is dispassionate, and you, as a reader, do the emotional work of being enraged at people’s self-centredness, fearful of what seems inevitable, and hollowed by grief and unfairness. That Wheatley has brought you to this place is a testament to her skill as a writer.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as an e-book

My rating: 9/10

AWW2019I have included this on the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge database

 

‘Angel of Death: Dulcie Markham, Australia’s most beautiful bad woman’ by Leigh Straw

straw_dulcie_markham

2019, 251 p. & notes

Historian Leigh Straw has been working on the underworld in Sydney between the 1920s and 1950s for some time. This book forms the third part of a trilogy. In The Worst Woman in Sydney: The Life and Crimes of Kate Leigh (2016) looked at underworld figure, sly grogger and cocaine dealer Kate Leigh, while in Lillian Armfield: How Australia’s First Female Detective took on Tilly Devine and the Razor Gangs and Changed the Face of the Force (2018) she looked at Lillian Armfield, the policewoman who, excluded from other types of crime fighting, was charged with chasing down young girls and diverting them from the vices of prostitution and addiction. Working on these two opposing forces – the criminal and the police officer- she kept coming across Dulcie Markham, who was well known to both Kate Leigh and Lillian Armfield. Obviously fond of the long book-title, in Angel of Death: Dulcie Markham, Australia’s most beautiful bad woman, Straw traces the life of this beautiful and notorious woman, who traversed Australia and was completely embedded within the underworlds of the cities in which she lived.

And Dulcie Markham was beautiful: stunningly so. She was known as “Pretty Dulcie”, but she was also known as the “Angel of Death” and “The Hoodoo Girl” as the men with whom she associated were shot and stabbed in a mounting rollcall of violence and death. Born in 1914 in Surry Hills (in Sydney) she ran away from home at the age of fifteen and took up prostitution as one of Tilly Devine’s girls, at a time of rivalry between the two Sydney crime-madams, Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine, and at a time when sly grog, gambling, larrikins and the Razor Gangs made Sydney a dangerous place to be. She first appeared in court as a member of Sydney’s underworld in 1931, when she gave evidence – or more correctly, stalled in giving evidence- at the inquest into the death of her erstwhile lover by her more recent paramour. This was the first of a number of deaths of five lovers and husbands where she was not physically present, but could well have been involved.

It is interesting to see how the sources available have shaped this story. Dulcie Markham was certainly talked and written about, and her police file was bulky, but she herself rarely spoke to reporters and there is virtually nothing written by Markham herself. As a result, Dulcie’s story was completely embedded within the stories of other people. At times I felt as if the author let herself be caught up too much with these other minor personalities, who had crime histories just as sordid as Dulcie’s.  Sometimes the excursions were triggered by some association, for example a sudden jump forward to the murder of a prostitute in the 1980s when discussing whether Dulcie was intimidated – a fairly tangential connection.  Perhaps it’s part of the crime writing genre itself (I’m thinking of John Silvester’s columns in The Age) but there’s a chatty, familiar chumminess and a bit of a chortle that comes through when the excesses of the underworld are being written. It makes me a little uncomfortable.

Yet this intimacy with the underworld is written within the academic framework of sources, academic books and theses, endnotes and bibliographies. The book wears its research lightly.

What these interwoven anecdotes and networks do demonstrate, again and again, is the violence which seemed almost casual, and the narrow line between being a perpetrator and being a victim.  Dulcie was herself shot and bashed, but bound by the code of silence as part of milieu in which she moved.  Surprisingly, although charged and convicted many times,  she spent remarkably little time in jail herself.  Clear, too, is Dulcie’s mobility as she shifts between Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, each time bobbing up in the middle of that city’s underworld, and switching her name frequently. Once in, it was hard to escape.

Straw contextualizes Dulcie’s life well, giving insights into the nature of criminal empires, the specific crime scene in a particular city, the nature of prostitution, and more general social life in Australia across these decades. Her final chapter, when she weighs up Dulcie Markham’s life is strong, where she discusses the trope of the ‘femme fatale’ and assesses her against Anne Summer’s dichotomy of ‘Damned Whores and God’s Police’. As against all the things that we don’t know about Dulcie Markham, Straw concludes:

What we do know is Dulcie May Markham was one of the toughest crime figures in Australia from the 1930s to the 1950s. In the violent neighbourhoods of crime across three cities, she proved herself by utilising the avenues then open to women involved in crime- prostitution, sly-grogging and gambling houses. Dulcie showed great intelligence, resilience and a staggering ability to live through intimidation and violence. She was a survivor in a world that saw few live to retire as she did to a quieter life. (p. 243)

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 7/10

AWW2019 I have included this book on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

‘I built no schools in Kenya’ by Kirsten Drysdale

Drysdale_BuiltNoSchools

2019, 339 p.

This book leapt out at me from the library shelves as I was walking past – Kenya!! I’ve been there! I didn’t built any schools either: instead I just enjoyed the company of my son and daughter-in-law who were living there at the time, for probably a two month period over four separate visits. And Kirsten Drysdale- I know her! She was on ‘Hungry Beast’ and ‘The Checkout’ on the ABC, and recently on Crikey’s INQ team.  So even though it’s not my usual fare, I snapped it up and found myself devouring it.

In 2010 Kirsten Drysdale had just finished working on the first series of ‘Hungry Beast’ and it was not certain whether there would be a second series. A friend contacted her and invited her over to work with her as a carer for a rich old man in Nairobi. Drysdale’s parents had come from Zimbabwe, and Africa had always been a mysterious part of family lore; the job sounded easy; all expenses and accommodation were provided, and there would be free time to go off on safaris or do some freelance reporting.  So she accepted.

When she got there, all was not as it seemed. Stepping out of the driveway of a fenced, low slung stone house with a large well-cared-for garden, she found herself in a colonial time-warp, as if the Mau Mau were still at the gate and the Brits had never left. [I can identify with this completely. When I was in Nairobi in 2014 we went to Lake Naivasha and visited a conservancy where they filmed Out of Africa. The woman there, beautifully coiffed, white blouse and khaki shorts, seemed to exemplify the old British elite with her clipped English accent and obvious nostalgia for the old Keen-ya and disdain for the new. You can my blog post about her here.]

The old man, Walt, his wife Marguerite and adult daughter from an earlier marriage were locked in a claustrophobic, paranoid battle with each other. The daughter, Fiona, lived in England but micro-managed her father’s care through daily Skype calls and more nefarious surveillance. She was convinced that her stepmother Marguerite was not looking after her father properly, and so charged the ‘carers’ with spying on Marguerite and reporting her shortcomings to Fiona back in England. Walt himself was an old bigotted Kenyan resident, who according to Fiona, would not accept a black carer. Hence, Fiona employed three white women (including Kirsten and another Or-stray-yen) who Walt, in his befuddlement, would think were house guests or perhaps granddaughters. None of these people are particularly likeable, especially Fiona, and it is no wonder that the family dynamics were well known amongst the expats in Nairobi. Walt’s life is very much manipulated by his family and carers, at Fiona’s behest. His condition is worsening, and he exhibits and evokes all of the frustrations associated with dementia.

Alongside this description of life within Walt’s family is Drysdale’s own response to Nairobi itself. I kept feeling little leaps of recognition as she mentioned places and sights that I had also seen. Crime and terrorism are both present, but she also revels in the busy-ness of Nairobi and the dignity and generosity of the Kenyan community that we rarely notice or acknowledge here in Australia.

This is not high literature, and it is not meant to be. I found myself laughing out loud in places, and the whole thing  rang completely true to me – even the dynamics of a family struggling with dementia, which is its own form of madness.  She has an acute eye for the absurd, but also is a keen and thoughtful observer of what is going on around her. Of course, part of my delight in this book was that I was familiar with what she was writing about – a bit like reading a book set in your home town- but I really enjoyed it.

My (admittedly biased) rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

 

‘The Dismissal Dossier’ by Jenny Hocking

Hocking_Dismissal

Updated edition 2016, 75 pages & notes

Is it only Labor supporters ‘of a certain age’ who remember where they were in 1975 when they heard that the Whitlam government had been dismissed? I was in my second year at La Trobe University, and being November 11, it was in the midst of exams. I remember sitting on the brick steps at the Agora, wondering if the student troops would rally and whether there would be a march on Parliament House. But there was nothing- at least not immediately. I think that people were just stunned.

And, after reading Jenny Hocking’s small book The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know About November 1975, I’d have to add that not only were people just stunned, they were lied to as well. It has taken over forty years for the truth to trickle out, through vendettas, scribbled notes in archives, interviews, and  re-evaluations. The story isn’t over yet: Jenny Hocking, who wrote the celebrated two-part biography of Gough Whitlam, is still pursuing ‘The Palace Letters’ between the Queen and her secretaries and Australia’s then-Governor General Sir John Kerr, which have been designated ‘personal and private’ by Buckingham Palace, and thus out of the reach of Australians.

So- what weren’t we meant to know and now we do, largely through Hocking’s persistence?  We now know that the Palace did know ahead of time that Kerr was planning to sack Whitlam. Through Reg ‘Toe-Cutter’ Withers’ spilling of the beans after himself being dismissed, we know that Fraser was aware of it too.  We now know that  Sir  Anthony Mason  had been involved even before Sir Garfield Barwick (the Chief Justice) was, and that Barwick and Kerr agreed to obscure his involvement at the time and afterwards.  We also know that Kerr, fearful that Whitlam would sack him first, had shored up his position with the Queen’s secretary and Prince Charles in advance.  We now know that Kerr was anxious that a Royal Commission not be held into the Loans Affair because it would have come out that he had signed off on the minutes of the Executive Council meeting that approved the plan.

There’s a lot, too, that we have either forgotten or not realized the significance of.  The Senate had not refused Supply, but the Liberal/Country party refused to vote on it. Whitlam’s poll numbers were improving, while Fraser’s were plummeting over the stalemate in the Senate. Whitlam had already spoken with Kerr about holding the half-Senate election days earlier and had the agreed papers in his pocket, which would have brought the stalemate to a head. The House of Representatives still sat on the afternoon after the Dismissal, and passed a motion of no-confidence in Fraser as Prime Minister by a margin on 10 votes – the ultimate breakpoint in our parliamentary democracy, which should have seen Fraser stepping down immediately.  There were in effect two dismissals on 11 November: first the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, then later that afternoon, the dismissal of the House of Representatives, which Kerr prorogued to avoid having to do anything with that embarrassing vote of no confidence.

These things have been revealed over the last forty years, but because they have been drip-fed, you tend not to see the whole picture. After Reg Withers revealed that Fraser had been in on it before the Dismissal, Fraser admitted that he had lied. How did I not know that? I remember Sir Anthony Mason’s dismissive “I owe history nothing” but I’d forgotten his role. I remember news of a dinner with Prince Charles, but didn’t make the connection. That’s why this book is so important. It’s only short, but it draws the threads together. It re-kindles the rage.

I was fortunate to hear Jenny Hocking speak last week (and a recording of her presentation can be found here). She reminded us that Gough’s exhortation was to “Maintain your rage and your enthusiasm“. Reading this book reminds me why we should maintain the pressure for a republic, and why Hocking’s own persistence and assiduity has been so important.  After the Federal Court dismissed her attempt to have the Palace Letters revealed, just this afternoon she was granted Leave to Appeal to the High Court of Australia. Those letters will and must be revealed one day: I just hope that she and  I live long enough to see them.

My rating: 5/5 because it’s it’s such an important book. Read it.

Sourced from: SLV e-book. (Did you know that you can download e-books from the State Library if you have a card?)

 

AWW2019I have included this on the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

‘How Australia led the way: Dora Meeson Coates and British Suffrage’ by Myra Scott

Scott_how_australia_led

2018 reprint (original 2003 Commonwealth Office of the Status of Women), 120 p.

This book was originally launched in December 2003 at a ceremony in Parliament House Canberra where two crucial documents of Australia’s democracy were put on public display. The first was the Australian Constitution and the second was the Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902, which gave the vote at Federal elections and the right to stand for Parliament to white Australian women on the same terms as men. Placed adjacent was the “Trust the Women” banner, made by Dora Meeson Coates in 1911 (which can be seen here) which, 77 years after its creation, was purchased from the Fawcett Library, London by the National Women’s Consultative Council as a Bicentennial Gift to the Women of Australia in 1988. In 2002 it was donated to the Parliament House Gift Collection for permanent display (although it sometimes travels to other museums).

This small book tells the story of the banner, its creator Dora Meeson Coates, and the context in which the banner was produced. Its author, art historian Myra Scott, had already written a thesis in 1992 on George James Coates and his wife Dora Meeson Coates where she described their role in founding a group of expatriate Australian artists in London, which became the base for successive generations of Australian artists seeking to establish themselves internationally. She was well placed, then, to write on Dora Meeson’s activities amongst the suffragists and suffragettes in England, where parliamentary approval for women’s suffrage lagged behind New Zealand and Australia’s pioneering legislation. The book has the British political system as its setting and focus and describes how, after the success of the Australian suffrage campaigns (even in laggardly Victoria) Australians travelled to ‘the mother country’ to encourage the British Parliament to pass similar legislation.

The creator of the banner, Dora Meeson was born in Melbourne in 1869. Her father, the founder and headmaster of the now defunct Hawthorn Grammar School, returned to London when Dora was ten years old in order to study law. The family then migrated to New Zealand, and in 1895 moved to Melbourne where Dora studied art at the National Gallery School. There she met fellow artist George Coates, and when he won a scholarship to study art in Paris, Meeson and her family also travelled to Paris. George and Dora married in 1903 and, leaving behind the comfortable economic milieu of her parents, they struggled to become part of the art world in London. After the death of her parents, she became increasing involved in the suffrage movement, most particularly through the Women’s Freedom League where she was founder-member.

Legislation for female suffrage had been presented to the British Parliament several times, but each time was blocked after the second reading. After one of these failures in 1908, they were advised by Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone that the success of the other Reform Bills in 1832, 1867 and 1884 had only occurred after large rallies forced the government’s hand.  It was here that Dora Meeson stepped up.  She was highly active in the Artisans Suffrage League, producing banners, postcards, booklets for womens suffrage – including her “Trust the Women” banner, which featured in the 1911 Women’s Suffrage Coronation Procession.

What surprised me in this book that it was not just Australian suffragists who lent their support to their British sisters, but (male) Australian politicians also very publicly supported the campaign as well. Prime Minister Andrew Fisher spoke in support at the International Women’s Franchise Club and at an all-male Labour banquet.   The Australian Senate sent a ‘resolution’ praising the influence of women’s suffrage to the British Parliament in 1910, but it was promptly buried by the British Prime Minister who did not want to publicize it. The proponents of suffrage reform could point to evidence from the Australian experience: women had not been turned into harridans; instead they had influenced important social legislation to benefit women and children. And even though the British Parliament might sniff at the presumption of the colonies to comment on the composition and suffrage of the House of Commons, the colonies and dominions had skin in the game. The proposed Naturalization Bill, whereby a woman’s nationality on marriage would change to match that of her husband’s (even if they were divorced or if the husband had died) was originally planned to extend across the empire, affecting Australia as well. (In the end, the dominions were allowed to grant local nationality under their own terms of qualification.)

The Women’s Suffrage Coronation Procession of 1911 was held to coincide with the Coronation of King George V. At the same time the Imperial Conference was held,  bringing politicians from across the empire to London. Margaret Fisher, the Prime Minister’s wife and Emily McGowen, the wife of the New South Wales Premier attended the Women’s Suffrage Coronation Procession, which took three hours to pass by, with 40,000 women marching five abreast, representing 28 women’s organizations. It was a highly visible march with music, floats and banners. Differences between the varied women’s groups, some of which focussed on parliamentary lobbying while others turned to direct action, were put aside for the march.

Dora Meeson’s banner representing Australia was big, requiring four people to carry it. Unlike other embroidered banners, this one was painted on an olive green background. The image, Scott suggests, references one of the paintings on the walls of the Exhibition Building in Melbourne, created for the Federation ceremony conducted there ten years earlier, which depicted Britannia as Minerva. In what could be- and was- interpreted as ‘colonial upstartness’, the banner depicted a younger woman beseeching a highly unamused Mother England to ‘Trust the Women’ who had received the suffrage in Australia. Far from the ‘aggressive rabble’ as suffragists/suffragettes were often depicted, these are ‘womanly women’, and the image appealed to statesmanship at the highest level.

But none of this agitation, or the urgings of Australian and New Zealand personalities and politicians, swayed the British Government. When war broke out, the campaign for suffrage was suspended and Dora Meeson joined Nina Boyle of the Women’s Freedom League in forming the Women’s Police Force to fill the positions of men who were at the front.  She continued to be a member of the Australian and New Zealand Women’s Voters Association, whose members promoted themselves as the only enfranchised women in Britain. After the provision of  partial suffrage in 1918, it was not until 1928 that Britain finally granted the full suffrage to women.

This book was re-released in 2018. During 2018 another book about the influence of Australian suffragists on the British campaign was also released – that of You Daughters of Freedom by Clare Wright. From my brief perusal of Wright’s book (which I have not yet read), they are two very different propositions. Wright’s book is large, at over 500 pages and weaves a tapestry of many women, told in a warm and colloquial tone. Scott’s book is much smaller, with an emphasis on the banner and its creator, in a more restrained narrative tone.

The story of Australia’s early 20th century progressivism is a good one, and it bears retelling many times, especially in today’s context of increasing conservatism. The actions of Australian women on the international stage, and the willingness of Australian male politicians to champion female suffrage once they found that there was nothing to fear, show Australia as a new nation, bristling with confidence and action.  There’s room enough for many stories celebrating this.

Sourced from: review copy from Australian Scholarly Publishing.

AWW2019 I have added this book to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019.

‘Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World’ by Michelle Scott Tucker

elizabeth-macarthur

2018, 339 p.

I am old enough to remember when Australia’s wool trade was a source of national pride. Primary school children would send off to the Wool Board (or whatever it was called at the time) to receive a project pack that included samples of wool at different stages of processing: straight off the sheep’s back, washed, combed, and carded, right through to a piece of woven material, all in a big envelope. John Macarthur was on our $2.00 notes, with a whopping great merino beside him, with William Farrer on the other side with his wheat, symbols of the importance of the pastoral industry and agriculture to Australia’s history and economy.

But it was all very male-dominated. I first heard of Elizabeth Macarthur when I visited Elizabeth Farm in Parramatta about twenty years ago. It struck me then, listening to the guide, that much of the glory that attached to John Macarthur more rightly should be shared with her, given that he spent so many years overseas. In this book Michelle Scott Tucker brings Elizabeth Macarthur to centre stage as businesswoman, wife and mother, dealing with a difficult and eventually mentally ill husband.

The book opens with a premature childbirth at sea on a convicts’ ship, where Elizabeth Macarthur, a gentleman’s daughter, is the only woman on board.  She, her husband John  and her infant son were sailing as part of the Second Fleet to Sydney Cove where he would take up his position as a commissioned officer in the New South Wales Corps.  As was common right up to the 20th century, Elizabeth kept a ship board journal, and Tucker contextualizes this journal well in explaining what shipboard life was like in the Second Fleet, and the social distinctions and rigidities within the hierarchy of the passengers. There were tensions, slights and confrontations and even here we see John Macarthur’s hair-trigger sense of honour which was to blight and shape the social life of his family within the colony.

I must confess that even though I’ve read about the early days in Sydney Cove, I didn’t realize the significance of the navy/army distinction as the basis of much of the dissatisfaction at the elite level within the colony (and come to think of it, probably in the other colonies I have read about as well).  Macarthur quickly moved into the centre of the social life of ‘good society’ and was deeply implicated in the Rum Rebellion against (Navy) Governor Bligh led by the New South Wales Corps (Army). His involvement in local politics at a time when official power was exercised through the Colonial Office meant that he spent many years overseas, clearing his name and honour, and then in a sort of political exile that in effect split the family. As was common at the time, young boys were sent ‘home’ for their education, and for many years Elizabeth kept the properties going, soothed the local politics as much as she could and built up the family enterprise on this ‘edge of the world’, while her husband and a number of sons did the same back in England. When a son went off ‘home’ as a seven year old schoolboy, sometimes he never returned to Australia. Instead, opportunities brought about through extended family connections and marriages kept him back in the’ old country’.

Colonial histories in the past, tended to focus on the world of men. In recent years there has been more attention on the networks of influence, opinion and behavioural constraints that operated in colonial societies. While John Macarthur had his own political involvements, so too did Elizabeth Macarthur within the women’s networks of early Sydney. His behaviour directly impacted on her own friendships and status, and Tucker describes this well.  Although aimed at a popular, as distinct from academic audience, the bibliography at the back of the book shows that she has read widely on early Sydney, although I’m surprised that she doesn’t reference Kirsten McKenzie’s Scandal in the Colonies which would have fitted in so well here.

The family correspondence has been kept, and it is through this lens that Tucker shapes her reading of Elizabeth Macarthur. Family correspondence has its limitations, of course, and these were exacerbated by distance and slow communications.  For letters to  friends, who had never -and would never- see Australia, there is an ‘other-worldliness’ to her situation. In letters to her sons, who did not need to have things explained, the maternal relationship still held. In letters to and from her husband John, beyond reporting events and business, the politics of their relationship was interwoven with the family mores of the time.

In several places, Tucker notes that Elizabeth Macarthur has not commented on particular events or people. This is always frustrating, perplexing and yet these silences often reflect something of the personality and times of the writer. Sometimes Tucker surmises “she must have….” which I found myself resisting. One of the questions of biography,  is how much we can claim a common worldview at the emotional level with people of the past, especially in the light of recent work in this field.

In this regard, the book reminded me of another biography of a ‘colonial wife’: that of Anna Murray Powell, wife of the Chief Justice in Upper Canada in the 1820s in Katherine McKenna’s A Life of Propriety: Anna Murray Powell and her family 1755-1849 (my review here).  A more academic text than this one, McKenna uses the family correspondence of the Powell family to examine how as matriarch and wife, Anna Murray Powell grappled with a young daughter whose very public and unseemly infatuation with the future attorney-general.  As with Elizabeth Macarthur, there are silences and omissions about the things we are most curious about as 21st century readers, particularly when dealing with a socially unacceptable situation – for Anna Powell, the behaviour of her daughter, and for Elizabeth Macarthur, her husband’s mental illness.

Elizabeth Macarthur was a mother, with her love stretched between ‘home’ and this new life very much on the edge of the world. She was a wife, displaying affection, but also exasperation and diffidence when dealing with a difficult husband. Within her own family relationships, she dealt with distance and madness.  She was an astute businesswoman, handling a large enterprise in the colonies while her husband had all the financial power. Tucker has given us a rounded picture of Elizabeth Macarthur, one that is faithful to the times and also to the sources.

My rating: 8.5

AWW2019I have included this review on the Australian Women Writers challenge