As I have grown older, and as more images flood our screens, many of the mental images I used to have of disasters have changed. I always thought of a tsunami as one of those enormous waves that big-wave surfers challenge themselves against, only to see in the Boxing Day tsunami that inexorable advance of water which, although not particularly high, just engulfed everything in its path. Bushfires I envisaged and saw as a roaring furnace, but not that blood-red, sullen sky of Mallacoota. Likewise with earthquakes. I knew about the shaking, the crumbled buildings and the ruptured roads but I had never heard of liquefaction. But liquefaction is here in this book:
Liquefaction is a fascinating, frightening seismic phenomenon. When it occurs over large areas it behaves as quicksand, a natural hazard capable of swallowing people and vehicles, and causing subsidence in buildings. It is a cruel epilogue to upheaval. Just as the survivor of a seismic event grapples with injury, damage and ongoing aftershocks, as they attempt to reel in their runaway panic and rush to check on children and property, as they disconnect gas bottles and grapple with what has just happened, within those hectic minutes a rising tide of liquefaction might come to lurk beneath the surface, seeking to pour forth a second wave of destruction….
What becomes of liquefaction after it has issued forth from the darkness beneath, into the light of the world? Like shame, it cannot survive being seen. In the heat of the sun, it dries to a grey powder as fine as talc and disperses on whatever current of air may find it, gentle zephyrs and howling gales alike, leaving only a scar in the earth where it emerged.
p. 277, 278
I knew from the title of this book that it was about the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. Tom uses the five stages of an earthquake as the organizing structure for her memoir, but only the fourth stage deals directly with 22 February 2011. The earthquake is a rupturing, all engulfing moment in the narrative, but it only part of Tom’s own memoir of her family, written as a promise to her forty-three year old younger sister whose burial occurs in the opening pages. Michelle is the eldest of three children, but both her siblings have died, Meredith through melanoma cancer and her youngest brother, Paul, through suicide after a long struggle with schizophrenia. Michelle is very much the ‘golden child’ and her sister Meredith the scapegoat, and all three children are damaged by the toxic, inexplicable and warped relationship between the parents.
The five stages of the earthquake frame Michelle’s telling of this family trauma: Stage One- the secret straining and warping long before; Stage Two – the replacement of water in the fissures of the rock by air ; Stage Three- the forcing back of water into the cracked, expanded rock and the accumulation of elastic strain; Stage Four- the rupture of the earthquake and the release of energy in seismic waves; Stage Five – aftershock, sometimes for many years afterwards, dangerous in their ability to bring down already weakened structures.
Within these stages, the narrative is presented as short, non-chronological bursts, almost like rocks that grind against each other. Each segment is at most ten pages long; sometimes only one or two pages, and they jump back and forth. It is as if the narrative itself is moving under the surface, squeezing, forcing, with the pieces rubbing up against each other. It is not an easy read, emotionally or in terms of sense-making.
In another review I read recently, I came across the term ‘authorial hand-holding’. I think of the vignettes in this book, put into groups under an overarching structure, but without any clear organizing principles. There’s certainly no hand-holding going on here, and I wonder if the writer has eschewed authorial responsibility altogether -with the exception, perhaps, of the fourth, ‘earthquake’ section. Each separate vignette is carefully written in very polished, introspective prose but it is the reader who puts them together into a narrative. For me, it is the connections and transitions across the whole of a narrative that mark out good memoir writing, and I tend to think that this mosaic-type, pointillist style of assemblage baulks at that final step of integration and creation.
Perhaps I’m getting too old. Not only do I find such splintered writing difficult to read, but I’m also more jaundiced and less empathetic, perhaps, at reading ‘family trauma’. Is it that as I get older, everything is flattening out? Or is it that with time I am more aware that everyone has their wounds, their secrets, their weaknesses, their uglinesses as well as their unfulfilled intentions and their failed attempts? I keep wanting to wriggle out of the author’s shoes, in order to stand in those of the people she is judging. With age, I am less deafened by the howl of the child’s pain drowning out everything else, and I am listening for those other mutterings, those other pleadings. I think, perhaps, that I need to put family memoirs aside for a while.
As the author explains in a preface, the word ‘rúin’ can be read in English, or it can be given its Irish meaning. In Irish, it means secret, but it is also a term of endearment. All three elements of the word come in to this debut novel by Irish lawyer Dervla McTiernan, now resident in Australia.
The first one section of the book is set in Galway in1993. Cormac Reilly, a young and inexperienced Garda (policeman) responds to a call to a derelict house, where he finds a mother dead in bed, and two silent, neglected children. The oldest child, 15 year old Maude, is protective of her five-year old brother, insisting that they both be taken to the police station.
Twenty years later, Detective Cormac Reilly is back in Galway, after climbing the promotional ladder in Dublin. He has moved to be with his partner, Emma, who is undertaking a research project based there. His deployment to the Mill Street station is treated with suspicion, and despite his long and successful experience, he is relegated to reviewing cold cases. He is largely side-lined from a new case where the discovery of Jack Blake’s body in the river is treated as a suicide. Jack’s partner, Aisling is devastated – and McTiernan captures this so well – and his sister refuses to believe that it is suicide. And Detective Reilly finds that the two cases are connected: Jack was that five-year old silent boy in the derelict house twenty years ago; his sister Maude is still fighting for her brother – this time rejecting the easy solution of ‘suicide’ that the police are pushing.
Like many detective/crime novels, this book combines the plot line, the personal home life of the detective protagonist, and the office politics of the police station. The book is told in chronological sections, stepping forward a few days at a time. The focus of the action switches between Aisling and Maude in their fight to get Jack’s case investigated more fully. Cormac reviews that early case from his older, more experienced perspective, following up on the cold cases that he has been assigned, and negotiating the resentment and duplicity of his fellow police officers.
There are a lot of characters here, and often found myself stopping to think “Hold on, who’s that again?”. I’m not particularly good with television crime programs either, which have many small characters who may or may not be associated with the plot line, and I found it even harder to keep track of when I didn’t have a clear visual picture of the characters in my head.
Crime is not one of my favourite genres, and I have mainly read it because it has been a book group selection (which is the case here too). Despite my frequent confusion, I was certainly drawn into the story and I liked the way that you were not left reading and re-reading, not quite sure what the ending was and who ‘dun’ it. I found myself thinking of Peter Temple and Garry Disher, two Australian crime authors whom I have read, and I think that I preferred the more layered treatment of characters that McTiernan provides. She’s not writing against a toxic masculinity, the violence is less bloody but more intimate (and disturbing) and there is a depth to the ‘victims’ – indeed, she doesn’t see them as such, but more as individuals in their own right who have been dragged into a mess not of their making. If I’m going to read another crime novel, I think I’d like it to be one of hers.
The international conference events industry has really been stripped bare by the COVID pandemic. I say ‘industry’ deliberately, because international conferences have very much become commercial events, leveraged and promoted by cities for tourism and reputational benefits far beyond any papers that might emerge from the conference itself. But this is perhaps not such a recent phenomenon as we might have thought.
This small collection of essays, edited by Lynette Russell looks at the annual conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which was held in Australia in 1914. The ‘advance party’ for the conference arrived in Perth on 28 July 1914, the day that Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Talk about timing! Right up to the official opening of the conference on 14 August, there was a question mark over whether the conference would go ahead, but it was decided that it would, as long as it didn’t interfere with the war preparations of the Commonwealth.
The British Association for the Advancement of Science was founded in 1831. It had always included the human sciences alongside geology, chemistry and the hard sciences, often included under headings of ‘Geology and Geography’ and ‘Biology’. By 1884, spurred by interest in archaeology and with links to humanitarian groups active on behalf of indigenous peoples in Australia and North America, a separate ‘Section H- Anthropology’ had been formed. When the BAAS organized its conference in Australia, it was concerned that it would have too much of an Australian focus, so it was decided to limit the number of Australian-themed topics to just 1/3 of all offerings – except for the Anthropology section. For anthropologists, the opportunity to travel to Australia and actually see ‘natives’, as distinct from reading about them from their armchair, or reading the untutored scribblings of local informants, was a real drawcard. Many took the opportunity – as you would – to extend their trip to the Antipodes for a bit longer to do some field research and catch up with old contacts.
The fairly new Australian Commonwealth Government made a hefty contribution to having this prestigious conference held in Australia. Over 155 scientists were fully funded by the Australian government, and they travelled on three ships especially contracted for this purpose (two of them were commandeered for war purposes after war was declared, making the return trip rather difficult). Another 200 scientists received subsidies and supported travel to the tune of 15,000 pounds (several million dollars in today’s terms). The conference participants visited Western Australia (where it started), South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. It had a prominent public focus. Five thousand people in total attended sessions, with two thousand of these in Melbourne alone. Melbourne, as the then-capital, played a particularly significant role with a number of scientific organizations, and many interested citizens, mostly -although not all- drawn from the wealthier suburbs, attended the lectures out of genuine interest.
I have gleaned most of this information from Lynette Russell’s opening chapter, ” A ‘Young and Vigorous Outpost of Empire'” where she emphasizes the unfortunate coincidence of timing with World War I and the significance of the conference for the newly federated nation. As an ‘anthropological historian’ she was the recipient of a fellowship undertaken with Oxford University, where the archives of the BAAS are housed at the Bodleian Libraries, with 200 linear metres of shelved material. A small seminar was held at the Royal Anthropological Institution, where these papers were workshopped.
As several of the papers in this volume emphasize, anthropologists at the time were operating under the stance of ‘salvage ethnography’ – the idea that ‘real Aborigines’ were about to die out, and that cultural change as a result of colonialism was invariably equated with cultural loss, culminating in an impoverished, corrupted and inauthentic culture. In Chapter 2 Ian J. McNiven explores the idea of ‘salvage ethnography’ more fully, where he describes the visit of Alfred Haddon and his daughter Kathleen to the Torres Strait immediately after attending the BAAS conference in Australia. Alfred was a Reader in Ethnology at Cambridge, a position he took up in 1909, and Kathleen, aged 26, was a Demonstrator in Zoology at the same university. Kathleen was a keen photographer. It was a six-week Papuan expedition, where Alfred returned to meet Maino, whom he had described as an ‘old friend’, who had been senior cultural consultant during previous expeditions in 1888 and 1898. When Maino was not able to explain the use of old shrines, Haddon attributed it to the ‘vanishing past’ trope that he had warned his professional and academic colleagues against. Although his approach to anthropology was seen to be rigid and outdated, ironically it was the observations and writings of anthropologists working in the ‘salvage ethnography’ tradition that formed the foundations of land and sea native title determinations in recent decades. The chapter closes with a lengthy extract from Haddon’s paper ‘The Decorative Art of Papua’.
The title of Chapter 3 “A Diary in the Loose Sense of the Term” is a play on the title of ethnographer Bronislaw Malinowski’s diary called A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, published in 1967 by his second wife. In fact, Austrian-born Malinowski was one of the participants in this conference and was detained when war was declared, but he was released with the assistance of a fellow anthropologist and allowed to carry out the research in the Trobriand Islands that established his career. But the diary in this chapter was written by Henry Balfour, the first curator of the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum. And he had none of the self-reflection or emotional angst of Malinowski’s diary. Instead, it was always intended to be a souvenir, filled with inserts, drawings and cuttings – a bit like a scrapbook. In fact, it’s not very interesting at all. There is a page of ‘cartoonlets’ from the Western Mail commenting on the war, but it was only kept because there were portraits of some prominent BAAS delegates on the back. His encounters with the Noongar people of Western Australia involved them hauling their car out of a ditch when it got bogged; in Lake Alexandrina (South Australia) he enjoyed a show of boomerang-throwing, lunch at the hotel, and a corrobborrie [sic]. He went for a trip with local Melbourne collectors, including Alfred Stephen Kenyon (who lived in my own suburb of Heidelberg), and his diary occasionally mentioned objects that he collected or bought, although it’s not clear whether they were private purchases, or acquisitions for the Pitt Rivers Museum.
Jane Lydon contributed Chapter 4 “Taming the Territory: William Baldwin Spencer and Elsie Masson”. Baldwin Spencer is best known today as a building at Melbourne University, but he was actually the foundation chair of biology. He was one of the main architects for the conference itself, but in the years preceding the conference he had been appointed Special Commissioner and Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory. During his year of service in 1912 he travelled throughout the Territory and submitted a report in 1913 which emphasized the ‘child like’ and primitive nature of the indigenous people there. A couple of years later, Elsie Masson (who went on to marry Bronislaw Malinowski) published An Untamed Territory, an account of a year spent as an au pair companion and nanny with the inaugural Northern Territory Administrator John Gilruth and his family in Darwin. The Masson and Spencer families were friends and neighbours on campus. She visited many of the places that Spencer had visited before her. Her book shared many of the racial views expressed by Spencer and his circle, but she gave it “a distinctively romantic, humorous, stereotypical inflection to her circle’s views, facilitating their reception by a popular audience” (p. 101) Her book concludes with the trial of nine Aboriginal men for the murder of a white trepanger, Jim Campbell. Although she satirizes the cultural misunderstandings during the trial, she also expressed sympathy for the Indigenous prisoners and the unfairness of the ‘justice’ system in which they found themselves enmeshed. She took photographs of the accused men’s wives and children, and the trepanning enterprise in which the murder took place.
The final chapter ‘The Notes and Queries, Gestures toward a Settler History’ is written by Leigh Boucher. In her introduction, Lynette Russell warned that “At first blush Boucher’s essay may not seem to obviously sit in its collection…” (p. 23). She’s right. However, ‘Notes and Queries’ was a questionnaire published in 1841 which was distributed to colonial informants to fill in and return to the BAAS in London. There were 89 questions dealing with
physical characteristics, language, individual and family life, buildings and monuments, works of art, government and laws, geography and statistics, social relations and religion (Queries Respecting the Human Race Address to Travellers and Others, 1841)
The Queries were distributed to the British Museum, the Royal Geographical Society, Scientific Bodies, missionaries and travellers, and were reprinted in colonial newspapers across the empire. However, it seems that not many completed questionnaires found their way back to the learned gentlemen in London, because travellers and commentators preferred to write their own volumes about their travels and observations. Other colonial observers, like Daniel Bunce, used the thinking in Notes and Queries to inform their own investigations.
So why is a discussion of an 1841 questionnaire included in this collection of essays? Well, the questionnaire was periodically reviewed until 1951, and indeed practising anthropologists in the 1970s could still remember the questionnaire being used in classrooms to introduce them to taxonomies of anthropological thought. Each of those anthropologists in Section H at the BAAS conference in 1914 would have been steeped in the thinking of Notes and Queries.
Nonetheless, the tenuous connection between this essay and the others in the volume has prompted me to think about the construction of a book of papers on a theme like this. I really don’t know where I would have put this essay. Chronologically, it occurs well before the conference, but putting it at the start would deflect the reader’s attention from the conference itself which is, after all, the theme of the book. Yet putting it at the end leaves it dangling, not so much as an afterthought as an aside.
I’m a little sorry, too, that Russell herself didn’t come back with an afterword to pick up on the subtitle of the book: ‘The Scientific Event that Changed Australia’. She does address this in her introductory chapter, pointing out that a chair of anthropology was established at the University of Sydney. An Advisory Council of Science and Industry was established in 1916, and Kangaroo Island was proclaimed a government reserve to protect the fast disappearing native fauna. However, these observations about the changes that occurred in Australia as a result of the conference probably would have made more sense after reading the papers, rather than before.
Nonetheless, I found this an interesting little volume, although it is probably aimed at a niche audience. I had not heard of this conference before, and it casts a light on the scholarly mindset that underpinned the early writing about indigenous society, very much from a London-based perspective.
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Because Lynette Russell is the editor, and because she has really taken the running in publicizing this book, I am including it on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.
I gave myself a stern talking-to before I started reading this book. After all, the subtitle is ‘In search of Elizabeth von Arnim’. I have often grumbled here about biography-as-search books, especially once the biographer starts talking about their own clothes and lunches. “You know you’re going to be reading a biography-as-search book here, when it’s in the title” I told myself. “So NO grumbling about researcher-emoting, food or clothes”.
I didn’t need to be so hard on myself. This book does none of these things. Yes, the author is very much present but it’s more a biography-as-memoir if I need to think of a hyphenated term for it. She engages at an intellectual and emotional level with the writings and life of Elizabeth von Arnim (the two were very closely associated), relating them to her own life. You learn about Elizabeth von Arnim, but you learn about Gabrielle Carey as well.
Gabrielle Carey. Gabrielle Carey? Where did I know that name from? I was part-way through when I remembered that Gabrielle Carey was one of the co-authors of Puberty Blues, the 1979 coming-of-age novel co-written with Kathy Lette (in fact, she mentions this). She has since written about her parents and the writers Randolph Stow and Ivan Southall.
Carey’s fascination started with Elizabeth von Arnim’s own writings:
My quest to learn more about Elizabeth von Arnim was born of an intense admiration of her writing, especially her light touch when satirising the men who were continually trying to thwart her irrepressible spirit. I was also fascinated by her ability to love, laugh and mother five children, while also managing to write a comic novel, on average, every year. somehow she could do all that and still find time to enjoy picnics and read poetry in the sun. The truth was that I wanted to be her: talented, accomplished, funny and also, fairly regularly, rapturously happy
What attracted her was that von Arnim wrote about being happy – hence the title, which was the motto inscribed over the door of Elizabeth’s Swiss Chalet. At a time in her own life when she was not happy, Carey decided to re-read every one of von Arnim’s twenty-one books again:
The first time round I had read them for enjoyment and entertainment- because they made me laugh. This time I would read them with a question: what did Elizabeth von Arnim understand about happiness that no other writer I’ve ever come across did? And is it something I too might be able to learn?
So, the book is a search for Elizabeth von Arnim’s Principles for Happiness, which she nicely presents as a single page certificate at the end of the book. She finds nine: freedom, privacy, detachment, nature and gardens, physical exercise, a kindred spirit, sunlight, leisure and creativity. Each of these is discussed in turn throughout the book, appearing as a subheading in a book without chapters. This is not just a one-way distillation of wisdom from on high. Carey brings her own life to the search, particularly with the concept of ‘privacy’ which recent events prior to embarking on the book had brought to the front of her own consciousness.
Carey is not the first to write about von Arnim, and nor has she been the last, because Joyce Morgan’s The Countess from Kirrabilli (see my review here) has appeared even more recently. I had read Morgan’s book prior to this one, which probably took over some of the biographical heavy lifting for me. I’m not sure what it would have been like to read this book first, and then the Morgan biography.
Out of the two biographies, Carey gives a better feel for von Arnim’s writing, I think. Both writers quote from from von Arnim’s letters, but it was Carey’s book that propelled me to purchase an e-book of her collected works- and I’m loving it. Carey’s tone mirrors that of von Arnim’s: there’s a chuckle in her voice and an intimacy with the reader. I didn’t really get the sense from Morgan’s biography that von Arnim’s books were comedies, albeit dealing with some rather grim topics. Morgan has more about her relationships with her several daughters, while Carey focuses on her relationship with her estranged daughter Felicitas, making more overt the connection between the real life Elizabeth/Felicitas relationship, and the book Christine, written by von Arnim but published under a pseudonym.
It’s odd that I often, without meaning to, find myself reading books that address similar themes. I was reminded while reading this book, of Dale Kent’s The Most I Could Be (my review here). Both books share a clear-eyed assertion of sexual autonomy and an almost defiant ownership of decisions that others have criticized. And as for Carey’s wish to be Elizabeth von Arnim? Well, in her closing words, as she returns to her home in COVID lockdown after her research, she takes her lunch (hah! there’s food!) outside into the garden:
…as the world turned in turmoil, I lay in the dappled sunlight pretending I was Elizabeth von Arnim. And even though I was far from Elizabeth’s enchanted places- the Swiss Alps, the bay of Portofino, the south of France- I discovered that my own ordinary, unsophisticated suburban garden could also be a genuine place of enchantment
A garden, sunlight, leisure, freedom, privacy. Five out of von Arnim’s nine principles. That sounds pretty much like happiness to me.
In January of this year I re-read Anna Lanyon’s Malinche’s Conquest (see my review here) and by the end of it I had resolved that I would read her follow-up book, The New World of Martín Cortés. Martín Cortés was the ‘natural’ son of Hernán Cortés and Malinche, thus making him one among the early mestizo children born in the New World. But he was not to stay in the New World for long, as his father took him back as a six-year-old to the Old World, Spain. This was part of the Conquistador’s attempt to seek forgiveness for, technically, being a rebel against the Crown when he embarked for Mexico against the orders of the Governor of Cuba. He also lobbied for recognition of his achievements and landholdings in the New World. Martín obtained a position in the court of Charles V and later, as a page to Phillip II. As part of embedding his respectability, his father arranged for him to be an initiate into the Order of Santiago. Both he and his father fought for the Spanish Crown in Algiers. Thus, this child of the New World, was integrated into the Old World, while his mother Malinche remarried and died within two years of her son leaving for Spain.
Just as she did with Malinche’s Conquest, Anna Lanyon presents this story as a search within the archives, and visits to significant locations, both in Spain and in Mexico. Perhaps my resistance to this way of narrating history is abating, or perhaps she spends less time in this book on journeying than in the earlier book: in any event, there is more about the archival search within the documents and less about travel.
The major complication Lanyon faced was that Hernán had three sons, and he named two of them “Martín”, a family name. He brought his first son Martín (Malinche’s son) back to Spain with him, but then had another two sons when he remarried in Spain, naming the first of those Martín as well. Hernán was appointed the Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca for his ‘discoveries’ in Mexico, and this title was handed to his second, legitimate Martín, whom Lanyon helpfully distinguishes from Malinche´s son by designating him ´the marqués´. Although Hernán went to considerable effort to have Malinche´s son and other three other natural children declared legitimate, the title and the wealth went only to the marqués.
It´s a pity that the wealth and title didn´t go to the older Martín. After Hernán died, all three sons returned to Mexico, to take up their father´s landholdings. Although the marqués was enjoined by his father´s will to provide for the older but illegitimate Don Martín, he did not do so. Moreover, the marqués became involved in the local South American politics, where the children and grandchildren of the original conquistadors were in dispute with the Spanish crown. By royal order, their right to enslave the indigenous people had been curtailed, and they could only inherit New World land to the second generation, after which it would revert to the Crown. When the marqués arrived, he was hailed by the conquistador sons as the leader of a resistance to these royal decrees that would undercut their patrimony. There were rumours of a rebellion, with the marqués at its head. When he went down, he took his brothers, half-brothers and friends with him, although luck continued to smile on him.
Lanyon knew the broad contours of Martín’s life before she started her research but even she felt sickened and saddened by the latter part of his life. Coming with no knowledge at all about Martín Cortéz, I felt that way too. Courage isn’t just found on battlefields: it is found just as much, if not more, in the dank cells of torture, where men are truly alone.
Both this book and Lanyon’s earlier Maliche’s Conquest have beautiful covers and black and white illustrations distributed throughout the text. I was intrigued by the handwriting embossed on the front cover, and which was watermarked on the opening page of each chapter. Lanyon did not have much direct documentary material to work with, and that which she did have was always complicated by the issue of exactly which Martín Cortéz she was reading about (don Martín or the marqués) but she did find his signature on one document- a tangible mark of his presence all those centuries ago. This is the handwriting that appears on the front cover and underlies the text.
The paucity of sources has forced Lanyon into a great deal of speculation and inference. She clearly marks this in the text through using modifiers like ‘perhaps’ and by framing statements as questions. She is aware of the danger of making such assumptions, such as when discussing Martín’s mestizo status in a community and time when ‘race’ was not necessarily the defining feature. For example, Martín may have been one of the first mestizo children to be taken back to metropolitan Spain, but it was a Spain with heavy Jewish and Muslim influences, and Martín may have looked no different from many other young boys there at the time. We are wrong to infer that he, or anyone else, might freight the issue of race with the significance it has now.
As with Malinche’s Conquest, I enjoyed this book that combined research, reflection and history-as-search. It’s a fairly easy read, and Lanyon is a gracious companion. And as with Malinche’s Conquest, she has settled on an ambiguous title. Martín Cortés may have been a child of the New World, but his upbringing and fate were moulded by the expectations and politics of the Old World, even in a New World setting.
The name ‘Dale Kent’ seemed familiar. At first I thought that she might be an expatriate feminist that I had heard of sometime, but on learning more about this book I realized with a little jolt of recognition that I had been one of her undergraduate students at La Trobe University.
It was back in 1976 and I did two half-units of Renaissance History- one on Florence and the Italian Renaissance, the other on Medieval Italian Communes. To be honest, I have little memory of the content, but I do remember seminars in the rather-pretentiously named West Peribolos building, with the west summer sun slanting through the edges of the holland blinds drawn against the narrow full-length windows at afternoon seminars. I remember Dale Kent who struck me at the time as quite beautiful, vivacious, theatrical and rather awe-inducing, and I regretted that I did not have her as my tutor, having instead an M. Billington of whom I have no memory at all (I had to consult an essay I had kept from the subject, to find out her name). So I was attracted to this book because, not only is La Trobe “my” university but I expected that, as a historian, she would structure a good memoir. After all, Inga Clendinnen who was a colleague of Kent’s at La Trobe at the time, wrote Tiger’s Eye, one of the best memoirs I have ever read (see my review here) and I hoped that this might be similar.
For me, a memoir is a creative re-construction of a life structured and shaped around a motif. Despite the phrase ‘the most I could be’ which was repeated both as boast and self-exculpation in several places, this is pretty much a start-at-the-beginning-and-go-through-to-the-end sort of autobiography. At the end of the book she says “As a historian, I have kept the record” (p. 406) and this is the way that it read: as an act of recording rather than creating. I admit to being disappointed.
I found myself wondering who might be the intended audience for this book, beyond other historians (many of whom may be checking the index, because in all but one case she uses the full names of her colleagues). The history field in Melbourne is not large, and there were many familiar names. Her area of expertise was patronage during the Renaissance, with a particular focus on the Medici family. Certainly she led what now seems like a charmed academic life: scholarships to undertake her PhD at Oxford University, positions at Berkeley and Princeton, sufficient tenure at admittedly lower tier universities that nonetheless provided a salary and sabbatical and other leave to travel to conduct her research in Italy; and a string of prestigious just-in-time fellowships and projects that sustained a career of over 20 years in America.
All this was a long way from her childhood in Moonee Ponds, East St. Kilda and then Caulfield, as the daughter of Christian Scientist parents. Her father was an engineer, while her mother had left school early. Her working-class grandparents, Nell and Horrie came from Footscray. She was overweight (something that is hard to believe because she is absolutely beautiful in the photographs included in the book), she wet the bed as a child and had few friends at school. A whole new world opened up for her when she enrolled at Melbourne University, and she left Christian Science behind. She met her husband, Bill, who shared her academic interest in Renaissance Italy, and they built their careers together. As a young mother herself, at the age of thirty, she decided to ‘divorce’ her parents because they were too intrusive, and eventually left her husband Bill too, and embarked on her peripatetic international academic career. Her relationship with her only daughter was the price, and one that I hope has not been inflated by the publication of this book. Ironically, her comment about why she ‘divorced’ her parents – “they didn’t love me enough to make the slightest adjustment of their expectations to my needs, so that we could continue to be part of each other’s lives” (p.156)- could conceivably be said by her own daughter about her.
This is a long autobiography at over 400 pages, and it is very detailed, especially when it came to describing the clothes she wore and the food she ate (something that I usually view as the kiss of death for an autobiography/memoir). There were some small factual details that I found myself eying rather skeptically. A Unitarian Church in Collins Street ?(Uniting Church, yes, but not Unitarian). Flamingos in the lake at La Trobe University? (geese, ibis yes, herons maybe, but not flamingos). Small details, I know, but I wonder how many others there were that passed me by.
She is laceratingly honest about herself, her sexual neediness, her alcoholism. I was drawn to keep reading the book, but it was almost as if I was reading with my fingers over my eyes, apprehensive over what she was going to do or reveal next. Too much sex, too many unavailable or unsuitable men, heedlessness to boundaries, a sense of grievance, a quixotic and unrealistic search for a ‘soulmate’, a bewildering lack of insight – why would she want to publish this, thus inviting her readers to sit in judgment on her? There have been quite enough other people doing that : her colleagues, her ex-husband, her daughter, friends who eventually tired of having her sobbing on the telephone to them. She is speaking and telling her story, but it is not hard to see her through others’ eyes. The mismatch between the professional and the personal is stark.
I was interested in her early life, and the effect of her family’s Christian Science religion on her social and intellectual development. She gives an insight into the life of the young academic, particularly when she and Bill were writing their doctoral theses, and she describes the hierarchies and power games within university faculties. She captures well the arid suburban life for bright women in the 1950s and 1960s, and the testosterone-fueled arrogance and combativeness of the scions of Ivy-League and Sandstone Universities. What fails to come through at all is the love that she clearly must have for her interest in Renaissance Florence after all these decades: not in the visual sense (which any tourist could have), but as an historiographical challenge. She has published widely in her field, contributing books, chapters and reviews over many years. Her work sustained and saved her, as she herself admits, but you get little indication of it at an intellectual or emotional level. I’m a little tired of reading of historians emoting about their adventures in the archives, but there is little evidence of a passion of the mind here at all. The body – yes; and appetites for food, drink, new places, and the next project – but no curiosity, or obsession or joy. I wish that I had seen some of that.
My rating: 7
Read because: I realized my connection with her, and because I like reading historians’ biographies.
I’ve often noticed that, by chance, I read two books in a row that seem to ‘speak’ to each other, even though I had not selected them for that reason. This happened again on reading Sofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep for my bookgroup, just after finishing Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. At first glance, there may not be much of a link between a young boy growing up in Melbourne’s Altona in an unspecified time (1980s?) and a ‘smart’ mannequin marketed as an Artificial Friend for teenagers during another unspecified time in the future. What links them them is the narrator’s voice: flat, literal and yet crystal-sharp at the same time. Underlying their blinkered vision is a deep well of sadness and pain.
Author Sofie Laguna does not offer a diagnosis for Jimmy, but today we would probably say that he is “on the spectrum”. We meet him as a six-year old, obsessed with his instruction manuals for the household appliances, puzzled by other people, who he sees mechanistically as a series of ‘pipes’ and networks, linked by strings to other people. We see the world – his baffling, frustrating world- through his eyes, but it is not hard to imagine how he appeared from the other side to his teachers and other children. Here he is, when his teacher Mrs Stratham, knowing that he liked threes, asked him the answer to ‘three times thirty-three’.
The class went very quiet as they waited for me, the Detective of Threes, to solve the problem. I closed my eyes and saw more and more threes everywhere I looked. In every line of threes there was one other number- six, four, one, nine, seven, seven, one – but was the answer in the diagonal or the straight? Nobody in the class made a sound.
The threes kept coming. I couldn’t see beyond them; it was an infinity of threes. I went from still to running, with no time in between. I got off my seat and ran around the chairs and around Mrs Stratham’s desk and past the windows to the door and back again. “Three three three three!” I shouted, touching everything I could. The answer lay on the surfaces and every surface was a clue “Three, three, three”. The answer lay on the surfaces and every surface was a clue. “Three three three!”
Crash! The lizard’s aquarium shattered behind me. “Three, three, three!” I shouted.
Jimmy is frustrated at school, and home offers little respite. His mother, morbidly obese and asthmatic, smothers him with love. His father, who works at the nearby oil refinery, drinks too much Cutty Sark and abuses his wife: something that Jimmy and his older brother Robbie are powerless to stop, escaping into the flat grasslands behind their house or cowering in bed together at night until the violence stops. It is harrowing, and Jimmy responds in his own way:
Panic streamed through her and was transmitted to me. I ran from wall to wall, my cells spinning me around the rooms, one after the other. Hallway! Kitchen! Bedroom! Bathroom! Sitting room! Hallway! Nobody could stop me! …I was faster than the speed of light. I knew if it went on much longer I would disintegrate.
Jimmy is labelled as being “slow” and yet, he is too fast. He is not well-equipped for when his life spirals out of control, through no fault of his own. I found myself fearing for this child and I was spurred to keep reading to keep the story going so that he would be safe (yes, I know that’s illogical). I ended up in tears.
The real strength of this book, which won the Miles Franklin, is the power of the narrator’s voice, which doesn’t slip for a second. The author has disappeared completely behind this guileless yet perspicacious character, who becomes real: someone I cared and worried about enough to lie awake at night, thinking of him. Her book is an exploration of class and deprivation, but also love and fear, strength and weakness. It deserved its Miles Franklin Award.
My rating: 9.5/10
Read because: CAE bookgroup selection. (The other Ladies Who Say Ooooh (my daughter’s name for my Bookgroup) loved it too)
It was odd that I should be reading this book when the issue of prostitution re-emerged into the public discourse. First, the state of Victoria finally decided to decriminalize sex-work by the end of the year. Second, The Age published an article about The Men’s Gallery in Lonsdale Street being accused of facilitating prostitution and breaching liquor and planning guidelines. Concerns about breaching planning guidelines are a very 21st century concern, but the anxieties about prostitution and liquor, especially in Lonsdale Street (albeit at the other end) are highly pertinent to Barbara Minchinton’s lively, well-researched and eminently readable book about sex workers in ‘Little Lon’ during the 19th century.
As she points out in the author’s notes, the term ‘sex worker’ was not used at the time. In fact, the word ‘sex’ did not appear at all in the newspaper or court reports. Instead they were ‘common prostitutes’, ‘gay women’ or ‘streetwalkers’. As society became more censorious, they were ‘sly girls’ and ‘she traps’, and ‘unfortunate creatures’. Surprisingly, prostitution itself was not illegal in the 19th century. Women could be (and were) charged with ‘behaving in a riotous or indecent manner’ or ‘being drunk and disorderly’ but not prostitution or soliciting per se. The focus was on ‘disorderly’ behaviour, and there was a feeling that shutting down brothels in one area would only shift the problem elsewhere. This changed in 1891, and even more so in 1907 with amendments to the Police Offences Act, which made street soliciting, and then soliciting from windows and doors illegal, and outlawed profiting from prostitution. It may have destroyed the business of prostitution that existed in Little Lon for Melbourne’s first seventy years, but it did not eradicate the profession itself. (p.239)
Thanks to C. J. Dennis’ Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, ‘Little Lon’ became notorious as the site for gang violence, drunkenness and prostitution. However, as Minchinton points out through her informative maps, there was an equally notorious site in the block between Bourke Street and Little Bourke Street, bounded by Spring Street and Stephen Street (today Exhibition Street). In a city riddled with lanes and small cross streets that have been largely obliterated by large-scale development today, Romeo Lane, Juliet Terrace and Bilking Square were central to another sex work precinct, just opposite Parliament House, and close to the Eastern Market, the Haymarket Theatre and the Theatre Royal. She likens these precincts to a cake in layers. Streetworkers were on the bottom level, using parks, gardens and laneways as their workplace. Some of these workers were just starting out, and perhaps doing it for pocket money, while others were alcoholic, ill and destitute. The second layer comprised women working out of rented rooms or houses. Some of them doubled as bar-maids, some paid only for the time they used the bed or the room, while others lived in ‘short time’ houses, sometimes known as ‘cribs’. The ‘flash brothels’ were the icing on the cake: double storey houses, with domestic servants, extravagantly decorated with lavish dining and entertainment services. Men could stay for weeks at a time, and the “dressed girls” entertained them with singing, cards and dancing. (p. 23-26)
Minchinton captures well a whole economy, dominated by women, that had spin-offs in other, more ‘respectable’ endeavours. Food, drink, drapers, dressmakers, chemists, money-lenders and furniture-hire companies all catered to the sex-work industry. Real estate lay at the base of it, ranging from the short-term hire of a room, the lease of house from landlords (and landladies) who often held several properties in their portfolios, right up to the purchase of adjoining houses to create a ‘flash brothel’, at times purchased by female brothel-keepers themselves . Nor were these areas solely turned over to prostitution: shops, hotels and residences existed side-by-side, sometimes in a reciprocal arrangement, at other times in a more censorious relationship.
There are nearly 100 women named in this book. Many are of Irish origin. Some appear just fleetingly, while others keep emerging from the court reports and newspaper articles that Minchinton has drawn upon, where she often reproduces the article in full. At times, the names threaten to become over-whelming, and so I was pleased when Minchinton drew breath to concentrate on six women in particular, who demonstrate the range of wealth (or poverty) and prominence (or anonymity and confusion in the public record) of women involved in the sex work network.
Annie Britton was famous for marching down Bourke Street in January 1873, with a captain’s cap on her head, scabbard by her side, sword over her shoulder and smoking a cigar: all probably the possession of her client Captain Gillbee of the East Melbourne Volunteer Artillery who frequented her “house of ill fame” in Spring Street. Sarah Fraser, the daughter of convicts, was the owner of one of the flashest brothels in Melbourne comprising 24 rooms across four separate houses. At the other extreme of wealth, there is Mary Williams who co-owned a series of brothels with her husband, starting with a two-room crib in a back lane. At her peak she had two adjoining houses and at least 3 women working from her premises. Sarah Sarqui, a singer, was said to have catered to the desires of the Duke of Edinburgh when he visited Sarah Fraser’s brothel during his visit to Melbourne in 1867-68. Finally, Mrs Bond worked from a house in Stephen (later Exhibition) Street, and later in Grattan Street Carlton. She purchased 143 Lonsdale Street in 1875 and set it up as a grocery store. It is thought that the absinthe bottles unearthed as part of the archaelogical dig in the Little Lon area were associated with her establishment at 143 Lonsdale. As part of explaining the decline of Little Lon through increased surveillance and harsher legislation, Minchinton looks at one of the most famous ‘flash madams’ of all, Caroline Hodgson or ‘Madame Brussels’ whose multiple court appearances and vilification in the tabloid newspapers between 1889 and 1906 reflected changing social and legislative changes.
In developing these portraits of women who were part of the Little Lon network, Minchinton draws on newspaper articles, court reports, family history and archaeological objects uncovered by the archaeological projects conducted at the ‘Commonwealth Block’ and later ‘Little Lon’. By broadening her vision out from the breathless, flippant and often censorious newspaper reports, she gives a picture of the whole lives of these women. For some of them, the appearances in court were just part of the price of doing business; for others they were part of a cycle of violence, drunkenness and imprisonment. They were daughters, sisters, wives and mothers as well as sex workers, and many of them moved in and out of the purview of the courts. In Minchinton’s view, the true villains are those misogynist male writers like Marcus Clarke (who wrote as the ‘Peripatetic Philosopher’) and “slummer journalists” like John Freeman (‘Liber’) and The Vagabond (John Stanley James – see my review of his work here, where I am less critical than Minchinton) who sensationalized and moralized within the same breath. Then there was David Blair, who wrote a Report on the Social Evil to Parliament in 1873 on the dangers of ‘contagion’, who after enumerating the reasons why European women might be driven to prostitution, claimed that the good wages for servants in Australia meant that only “vicious inclination and evil example” could explain its presence in ‘young’ Australia.
In representing the whole lifespan of these women, beyond court appearances and titillating newspaper articles, Minchinton emphasizes the agency and independence of this 19th century women’s network. Certainly there was violence, addiction and illness -and she does not in any way downplay it- but as she says:
The predominance of Melbourne’s nineteenth-century brothels shows that in a world where sex has has a commercial value, women can and will make use of their sexuality when it suits them, without necessarily suffering harmful consequences.
Minchinton’s wide-ranging research and focus on whole lives emphasizes the networks between women in this largely (but not completely) female-dominated economy that extended far beyond just the provision of sex. You get a sense of the collective ‘up-yours’ of women who danced in the streets -not quite the vision of degradation and evil depicted by journalists and moralists.
My rating: 9/10
Sourced from: review copy from Black-Inc/Schwartz Media
It was the little sticker announcing ’25th Anniversary Edition’ that attracted my attention to The First Stone, which I read back in 1998. Is it really 25 years since this came out? How did this edition differ to the original? I wondered. Has Helen Garner added anything to this book? How does she feel about The First Stone now? How do I feel about The First Stone now?
Well, the first and easier questions first. This edition has a foreword written by Leigh Sales in November 2019, and has three additional pieces at the end. The first of the additions, ‘The Fate of The First Stone’ is a speech delivered by Helen Garner herself as the Sydney Institute’s Larry Adler lecture in August 1995, just after the book had been released and when Garner herself was coming under heavy criticism. The second ‘Helen Garner’ was written by David Leser and published in the Good Weekend in March 1995. The final piece is an excerpt from Bernadette Brennan’s A Writing Life: Helen Garner and her Work first published in 2017. Garner herself has not added anything else to the book. I was interested that its publication in 2020 did not seem to provoke any further commentary from her or anyone else for that matter. And so, I don’t know how she feels about The First Stone now. The only question that I can answer is how I feel about The First Stone now.
So what was The First Stone? It was a book where Garner reflected on the case of the Master of Ormond College at Melbourne University, who was charged with indecent assault by two female students. The events had occurred after the ‘smoko’ after the Valedictory Dinner in October 1991. One student claimed that the Master had groped her breast while they were dancing; the other claimed that he had asked her into his office after the smoko and groped her there. He denied both accusations. The charge on the second offence was dismissed in the Magistrates’ Court. He was found guilty on the first groping charge, but successfully appealed the verdict in the County Court. After initially backing the Master, Ormond College withdrew their support and he lost his position.
On first reading about the groping case, Garner, as a veteran of the women’s movement of the 1970s, was appalled that the girls had gone to the police over what she saw as such a minor offence. After all, she and practically every woman she knew had been exposed to similar lewdness. She felt that the feminist struggle had been transmogrified into a legalistic, puritanical, punitive, petty process, that conflated minor infractions and egregious assaults. Her immediate response was to write and send a letter of support to the Master of Ormond College, who was personally unknown to her. When she came to interview the women themselves and their supporters, she was seen as being an apologist for the Master and to have betrayed her own feminist identity. Positions quickly hardened, on both sides, despite Garner depicting her book as series of questions and reflections.
I read The First Stone in January 1998 and then quickly followed it up with Virginia Trioli’s Generation F (which has also been republished in late 2019) and Jenna Mead’s Bodyjamming, the latter two written fairly soon after the original book’s publication. I noted in my reading journal that Trioli’s book was seductively easy to read, but that I felt that I had had enough after Jenna Mead’s edited collection of essays. It is hard to capture now just how controversial Garner’s book was. It was pretty unedifying really. Reading it 25 years later, I found myself wincing at her venom against the feminist supporters of the two women, and her blithe dismissal of the power imbalance between the Master of Ormond College and two students. Garner bridles against the smooth entitlement of the ‘Ormond Man’, but seems oblivious to how it would reinforce power, when two young women took on The Establishment writ large, as Ormond College surely is, by taking their complaints to police. Reading the essays that follow the reprint in this Anniversary edition, I am not comforted by the fact that she spoke at the conservative Sydney Institute, or that her stance was supported by conservative commentators P.P. McGuiness or John Laws (much to Garner’s own horror). She tried to interview the two women, but they would not speak to her (as indeed was their right), and they have kept their silence ever since. No doubt, The First Stone would have been a different book had they spoken to her, but I’m not sure whether it would have entrenched, or challenged, Garner’s argument.
Nonetheless- and that’s a very Garneresque thing to say- her point about ‘degree’ still stands. Reading this edition, 23 years after I first read it, I am now closer in age to Garner (both then and now) than I am to the young women. I do wonder about, and am glad that I do not have to negotiate, the sensitivities over ‘ongoing consent’, and the red-lines over banter and flirting. I enjoy Garner’s writing- I always have- and even though I intended reading only the foreword and the closing essays, it was so easy to be drawn into re-reading her original book, with her mixture of self-effacement yet grit, her questioning and her uncertainty. The older I become, the more appreciative I am of nuance and ambivalence, and you find them both in her writing.
But – and there’s another very Garneresque expression- 25 years later we have had the ‘Me Too’ movement, something that Garner herself pre-figures in the book by telling us of her own experiences, some where she felt she had agency, others where she did not. The organizational and legislative channels that were in their infancy then -and indeed had been created as a result of the work of those 70’s feminists – failed the young women at the time but have become more robust. Even more disturbingly, we have seen a number of powerful, well-connected, QC-laden men rebut ‘strenuously’ (as if the strength of their rebuttal is sufficient proof of their innocence), and often successfully, the accusations against them through the courts, sometimes in their own defence, at other times in order to seek legal redress from their accusers. Today, the power-relations implicit in this case would be not have been overlooked, or side-lined, as they were at the time.
However- and there’s another qualifier – even though it might seem more clear-cut, questions still remain. Because we are talking about ‘humans’ and ‘relations’ then questions should, must remain. There might not be many who would spring to the Master of Ormond College’s defence today – would Garner? (I don’t know). In that regard, the book has dated badly. But the questions of proportionality, agency/victimhood, generational change, the law, class and feminism are just as pertinent – if not more pertinent- today.
My rating: How do I rate this? Should I rate high because it drew me in just as much as it did when I first read it. Or should my rating reflect the fact that time has moved on? I don’t know. I can’t say
You can start reading a book thinking that it’s going to be about one thing, then it ends up being another. When that happens, it can be disappointing, or it can be exhilarating. For me, with Kathryn Heyman’s Fury, it was the latter. It’s a tightly constructed, human, affirming memoir that took me to places where I had never been, but also took me back to places that are less comfortable to visit.
I first heard of this book when I was in the car, listening to a sliver of Richard Fidler’s Conversations program: I didn’t catch the start, and I missed the ending, as you do when you’re in the car. The title of the program was The girl who ran away to sea: the making of Kathryn Heyman. With her rounded vowels and obviously well-educated speech, I was under the impression that the book was about a young girl who joined a fishing-trawler fleet – and indeed, at one level, that is true, but it is much more than this. When I saw Kathryn Heyman speaking via Zoom at the Yarra Valley Writers Festival, she was just as she sounded: cultured, quite beautiful, confident, animated, middle-aged (but younger than I!). But she was not always this way. In her telling, she was overweight, from an unhappy family and acutely conscious of wanting to have friends and be accepted.
The book starts with her hanging onto the boom of a fishing trawler in a howling storm, handing down tools to a co-worker as huge waves swamp them. We return to this precarious situation near the end of the book, but in between we learn about what has led her to join a fishing fleet. This is not a straightforward chronology, but instead she jumps back and forward, always with consummate authorial control.
As a child, she was “a biter” and her father christened her “Little Fury”. Her father was a policeman, a violent and explosive man. Unhappy both at school and at home, reading was her escape. She tried hard- too hard, probably – to win the friendship of female friends, and as she grew older, the attention and affection of men for whom she was expendable and, at times, exploitable. The fury in this book – implacable, focussed – is more a product of the mature, adult woman she is now, rather than the needy young woman she was then.
Women tend to excuse and forget the small, mounting accumulation of male abuse. It doesn’t have to be physical violation: it can be the leer, the jeer, catcall, the mirth of a ‘flash’, the opportunistic grope. When you add them up, it’s a pathetic litany, and one that I had almost forgotten until she took me back there. She writes so well that I could almost feel it again: the anxiety and desperation of being a young girl, unsure of yourself and your body. When she was raped, she was belittled at the police station, and again in the courtroom. It was her impatience with herself – with her anger, with the repetitions in her life, and her weariness of being the victim – that led her up north. Wanting the money to travel overseas to re-invent herself, she signed onto a fishing trawler as a cook. It was a risky decision. In the first place, she was not, and never had been, a cook. But more importantly, given what she wanted to escape, she was going into a confined, live-in situation with only men. The potential for it all going wrong was high.
This is such a well-written book, so carefully structured and so controlled. All memoirs are constructions, and the more skilled ones go beyond chronology, as this one does. Here is a writer who knows her craft. It is a reflection on class, femaleness, sexuality, the power of story and the narratives we tell ourselves. It has emotional rawness and fidelity, but it is also lyrical and evocative in its descriptions. There is a slow-burning fury, but because she has moved beyond it and can look back, there is also forgiveness and tenderness for herself. This book was so much more than I expected it to be.
My rating: 9/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as an e-book