Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021

‘The Most I Could Be’ by Dale Kent

2021, 456 p

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 have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘The Eye of the Sheep’ by Sofie Laguna

2015, 320 p.

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)

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

‘The Women of Little Lon’ by Barbara Minchinton

2021, 304 p.

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

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

‘The First Stone: Some Questions about Sex and Power’ by Helen Garner

2020, 304 p.

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

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

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

‘Fury’ by Kathryn Heyman

2021, 328 p.

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

Read because: I was so impressed with Kathryn Heyman at the Yarra Valley Writers Festival.

I have included this on the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge Database.

‘The Countess from Kirribilli’ by Joyce Morgan

2021, 313 p.

Perhaps Joyce Morgan is channelling the spirit of Mary Beauchamp/Elizabeth von Armin, the subject of this biography, in choosing such a deceptive title. Particularly for those of us who do not live in Sydney, Kirribilli is synonymous with the ‘second’ Prime Minister’s Residence located on the shores of Sydney Harbour ( a cause for some interstate disgruntlement when the incumbent Prime Minister is from NSW and spends most of his time on Sydney Harbour rather than in Canberra). So who is this Countess?

It’s all a bit misleading, because when young Mary Beauchamp lived at Beulah House in the suburb of Kirribilli, she was certainly not a countess. She was born in Australia in 1866, with an English-born, merchant father, and a Tasmanian-born mother Louey. After living in several houses in Kirribilli, they finally shifted to a (now demolished) waterfront house, Beulah, close to their wealthy maternal uncle Frederick Lassetter and his family. When she was three, her father decided to follow the Lassetters when they returned to England. Mary – or ‘Elizabeth’ as she was better known through her first book Elizabeth and her German Garden, a name which she adopted permanently as a widow, – never returned to Australia again. She made no claim to Australian identity, and it’s interesting that she has no entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

So where did the ‘Countess’ part come from? She gained the title through marriage to Count Henning August Arnim-Schlagethin, a Prussian aristocrat, fifteen years her senior who, while titled, had also inherited his father’s debts. They lived in Germany, and she soon found herself burdened by serial pregnancies with three children in less than three years, five in total. She and her husband spent much time apart. Mary and her children lived in Nassenheide, in a dilapidated schloss, which she renovated. It was a marriage marked with conflict. After Henning died, her next marriage, to Earl Frank Russell (grandson of Lord John Russell the Prime Minister) and brother of Bertrand Russell, was no happier. She kept her ‘Countess’ designation, but now she was Countess Russell. She seems to have swung between happiness and misery in a tempestuous and emotionally labile second marriage. After this marriage broke down, she had other affairs, possibly with her friend H. G. Wells, and with Alexander Frere, who later became a noted publisher, 27 years her junior and literally half her age.

Her former brother-in-law Bertrand Russell warned his children “Do not marry a novelist”. He was right. Elizabeth’s life and experiences very much informed her books, and she drew on both her husbands as characters in her books, and not to their advantage. Framed humourously at first, but then in a more sinister light, she called the Henning-like character in first book Elizabeth and her German Garden ‘the Man of Wrath’. When she wrote The Pastor’s Wife in 1914, the epynomous pastor was Prussian, and took his innocent English wife Ingeborg to provincial life where (like Henning) he studied agricultural developments, and kept her constantly pregnant until an artist (not a writer, as H. G. Wells was) came into her life and convinced her to leave. Vera, seen as the darkest of her books is a “terrifying portrait of domestic tyranny” (p. 185). The husband in this story, Wemyss, takes his young wife Lucy to a gloomy house The Willows (very similar to Frank Russell’s house Telegraph House) where he works to exact total submission from his wife through his moods, vile tempers and manipulation.

Elizabeth worked hard as a writer, almost constantly working on a book. She made sure that she had a working studio in each of the homes she created, and would keep working even when hosting an ongoing stream of visitors. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of any of her 21 books, which seem to range from whimsy to some rather dark domestic themes and back to memoir again. In a literary biography, there is a narrow line for authors to tread between giving the flavour of their subject’s writings for those who have not read them on the one hand, and delving into a more detailed analysis that assumes that the reader is familiar with them on the other. I think that Morgan handled this well, demonstrating the variety that can be found in von Armin’s writing, integrating these largely-autobiographical works into her telling of von Armin’s life, and encouraging the reader to actually read her books.

Most striking is just how well connected in a literary sense Elizabeth von Armin was. Her cousin was Katherine Mansfield, with whom she had a close, but at times, strained relationship. She counted H. G. Wells, E. M. Forster, Rebecca West, D. H. Lawrence amongst her friends and acquaintances, and she knew innumerable people amongst the English intelligentsia. She lived through both the first and second World Wars, fearing for two of her daughters still in Germany, and apprehensive about the Jewish connections in her first husband’s family. Even though she hated travelling by sea in a time when air travel was not yet available, she travelled and lived in various places in Europe and visited those of her children living in America.

She was an idiosyncratic mixture of exhibitionist and dissembler. She wrote best-sellers under a non-de-plume for almost 30 years before her identity as ‘Elizabeth’ was definitively established. She kept secrets from her friends and family and she burned many of her letters (which fortunately the recipients kept). Yet she treated her life as raw material for her semi-autobiographical writing, thus putting her family and friends into the public arena, without consulting them.

Joyce Morgan has presented an enigmatic, fascinating woman who lived a life very far removed from an Australian experience. She has a light touch as a biographer, starting each chapter or section with a narrative, scene-settling, imaginative paragraph or two, as if she is coming up for air, before diving down into description and analysis again. This leads to a fairly ‘choppy’ sort of reading experience, but it also keeps the biography at an easily-accessible level. It is only when you turn to the back of the book that you realize how well she has integrated primary sources into her narrative, drawing on journals and letters by Elizabeth, Katherine Mansfield and H. G.Wells. A rather odd coda has been added to the book where Morgan delves further into von Armin’s Australian family history, almost as if the author feels that she needs to ‘prove’ her Australian-ness which is otherwise incidental to the rest of Elizabeth von Armin’s life.

For me, Morgan has piqued my curiosity sufficiently to seek out one or two of Elizabeth von Armin’s books, and Gabrielle Carey’s biography as well. For a biographer, I’m sure that means ‘mission accomplished’.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

I have included this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge Database.

‘Caroline’s Dilemma’ by Bettina Bradbury

2019, 352 p.

‘Ruling from the grave’ seems a particularly insidious form of personal power, as Caroline Kearney found out as a 31 year old widow with six children. She had immigrated to Australia with her family from England as a 17 year old, and married Edward Kearney, a Catholic Irishman who had left his family back in Ireland when he settled in Australia. After farming in South Australia and then the Wimmera in Victoria, Caroline expected that her sons would inherit the family property. It was only when her husband died in October 1865 that she learned that the inheritance, for both herself and her children, depended on her shifting to Ireland and raising the children there as a widow, under the guidance and oversight of her very Catholic -inlaws. She was English: she had never been to Ireland, and all her children had been born in Australia. A dilemma indeed.

It says much for this book that I’m not going to tell you any more. The decisions made and tactics deployed by both Caroline and the Kearney family lie at the heart of this narrative, and I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment by telling you what happened.

Bettina Bradbury is a New Zealand-born historian, who spends much of her time in Australia. She has spent much of her academic life in Canada, writing women’s and family history and her most recent book Wife to Widow: Lives, Laws and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Montreal won multiple awards. It was in widening her lens to look at marriage, property and inheritance in the British Empire more generally that she encountered Caroline Kearney. She found the reports of Caroline’s contest against the will in the Victorian Law Reports, and scrawled “Wow, draconian patriarch” and “controlling father too” across her copy. Fascinated by the case, and the ways in which it embodied the themes she wanted to explore, she put aside the broader book she planned, and concentrated on Caroline instead.

Although she acknowledges the assistance she received from two great-great-grandchildren of Caroline and Edward, this is not your usual family-history search narrative, freighted with family identity and identification. That is not to say that Bradbury was not emotionally invested: her loyalties clearly lie with Caroline and other women whose financial rights were circumscribed by property and inheritance law until Married Women’s Property Acts were legislated across the British Empire. But she brings to this case study her historian’s eye, conscious of context and the norm, and alert to the anomalous and unusual. Her extensive bibliography (how lucky she is to have footnotes AND index AND separate bibliography!) reveals the breadth of her sources: newspapers, genealogical information, legal documentation, secondary sources and an unpublished family history, written by one of Caroline’s sons explaining his family upbringing. These sources enable her to focus in closely on Caroline’s case, but then step back to take a wider perspective. In this way, we roam across emigration history, pastoral history, 19th century legal principles, sectarianism, social history, women’s rights, paternalism and history of the family more generally.

Bradbury is present throughout the narrative, interjecting “I” observations at various places. She is open in admitting where the sources fail her, and where she has had to turn to imagination and empathy instead. While her sympathies clearly lie with Caroline, she is not unaware of her foibles. From the perspective of more than a century later, mis-steps and wrong turns become clearer, but not more explicable. In some of the twists and turns of the story, Bradbury is incredulous – wondering whether the person named in a document really is ‘her’ person because their actions seem so discordant. I guess that it’s the difference between a life lived, with all its contradictions and compromises, and a life documented in the flat and abbreviated historical record.

Bradbury has hit the sweet spot between an engaging narrative history and insightful analysis with this book. Because the two are interwoven so seamlessly throughout the text, I was a little disappointed in the ending, which was a ‘what happened next’ follow-through with the members of the family. While I did want to know what became of the children, this section was necessarily more cursory in its treatment, and became rather too much of a genealogical run-through. There was a short, more analytic summary in the closing pages, but I would have preferred that it was longer, with a wider scope.

This book was shortlisted for the 2020 Ernest Scott History Prize, which is awarded to “the book judged to be the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand or to the history of colonisation published in the previous year.” Its span and its strong tethering in the carefully-documented sources give it historical “chops” but it’s a very human, sensitive story as well, told with discernment and compassion.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: review copy from New South books. Also available from the Royal Historical Society of Victoria bookshop

I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Questions of Travel’ by Michelle De Kretser

2012, 515 p.


I come to this book nine years after it was published. It comes garlanded with prizes: The 2013 Miles Franklin; the Prime Ministers Literary Award, the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, and shortlisted for the inaugural Stella Prize. How does it stand up, almost a decade later?

It is a long book at just over 500 pages, and I was reading it under pressure for a looming book group meeting. Five hundred pages is a hefty tome, but if you asked me to summarize the book, it really comes down to two rather simple stories.

Australian Laura Fraser is the large, ungainly daughter in a wealthy family, who spends much of her early adulthood travelling abroad. Tiring of travel, she returns to Australia and begins working Ramsay Publishing, a travel guide publishing company in competition with Lonely Planet, while renting small rooms on the upper storeys of an old ramshackle Harbourside house, owned by an elderly man with a large, untidy collection of paintings by deceased artist, Hugo Drummond. She is largely rootless: she owns no property, and has a strings of affairs with unavailable, married men, dalliances with older men and infatuations with gay men.

In the other story, Sri Lankan Ravi emigrates to Australia as a refugee after his wife and son are found murdered in mysterious circumstances that hint of official and police involvement and cover up. Although, as a Sinhalese Ravi was not in political danger, as he might have been had he been Tamil, his wife had been a Human Rights activist. Shifting from house to house, and disguising himself as a tourist in Colombo, one of his wife’s activist friends arranges for him to fly to Australia on a tourist visa, with a view to seeking asylum after arrival, hence avoiding the detention scheme for refugees who arrived by boat. He is a rather passive and ambivalent refugee, confounding our easy assumptions about ‘real’ asylum seekers.

The book follows the trajectory of these two main characters from the 1960s through to 2004. The narrative is often quotidian yet detailed, and there were many times when I wondered where (if anywhere) this book was going. The descriptions are so clear that you can almost see them in your mind’s eye, even though I had not been to many of the places described. They combine everyday, unexceptional life with large, explosive world events that occur off-stage – the death of Princess Diana, 9/11 etc. Big events occur, completely without warning or emphasis, and you find yourself re-reading to make sure that what you thought happened, actually did. As a reader, you develop a warmth towards this large, essentially aimless girl, and this man, traumatized by the deaths of his wife and child who somehow seemed more loveable to him once they had died. The book plaits the two stories, one over the other, and any expectation that somehow they are going to merge in some large plot development is disappointed. The action that moves the book forward is everyday and largely inconsequential, within a framework of larger, international events. Both Laura and Ravi are rootless, even though they are both drawn ‘home’.

This pointillist, rather aimless structure plays out de Kretser’s larger argument about “the question of travel”. As her character Laura observes, much of travel involves just hanging around, doing nothing, waiting for the next thing – just like in this book. Laura works at a ‘travel’ book publishing company, priding itself on supporting ‘travel’ rather than the more grubby, commercial ‘tourism’ – but where does the difference lie? Is it ever possible to have an ‘authentic’ travel experience, or does authenticity lie in the everyday and banal? How has the internet, the development of which she traces in this book, changed the nature of travel when experiences can be rendered digitally? And what of those who choose to travel, as distinct from those who are forced to travel?

I don’t really know what to think about this book. At over 500 pages, it was very long and much of the book consists of rather banal detail. Events land unexpectedly, just as in real life. Some change the whole trajectory of the book; others are absorbed into the flow. I found myself thinking of the book as a type of mosaic. Each little tile by itself is inconsequential, and yet the connection of each little tile contributes to a bigger picture. I suspect that the details of this book have wormed themselves into my consciousness far more than I realize, and that my appreciation of the book will grow, rather than diminish, over time. It is beautifully and intelligently written, and you could choose any page at random and find a sentence that captures an image with crystal clarity or skewers an observation with a spiky, mordant wit. Just like when travelling, much of it was boring and inconsequential. And, much like when travelling, the experience of reading afforded by this book creates something much bigger than its parts.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: CAE bookgroup. My bookgroup was divided in its opinion.

I have included this on the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

‘Black, White and Exempt’ by Lucinda Aberdeen and Jennifer Jones (eds.)

2021, 184 p.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are respectfully advised that this publication contains names and images of deceased persons and culturally sensitive information.

I think that one of the most damning and poignant phrases in the Uluru Statement from the Heart refers to “the torment of our powerlessness”. I think about the massacres; I think about the Stolen Generations and now, after reading this book, I add the ‘certificate of exemption’ to this grim array of injustices.

The exemption legislation, introduced across Queensland (1897), Western Australia (1905), Northern Territory (1936), South Australia (1939) and New South Wales (1943) is almost breathtaking in its condescension and its nonchalance to its implications. Although the legislation differed between the states, it involved a process by which individual Aboriginal people could apply for a certificate to declare that they were exempt from the ‘Protection Acts’ on the grounds that they were more ‘assimilated’ than other Aboriginal people – lived moral lives, didn’t drink too much, had steady jobs – and didn’t participate (at least as far as the government was concerned) in Aboriginal culture or socialize with other ‘unexempt’ Aboriginal people. This exemption could be revoked at any time: likewise, it could be imposed without consent on ‘troublemakers’ to separate them from the community.

Ironically, some white Australians, wanting to challenge and negate Indigenous narratives, today deride their authors as “not real Aborigines” (yes, I’m looking at you Andrew Bolt). Yet the Australian government deliberately encouraged this conscious self-rejection of Aboriginal identity, which passed as a matter of course to their children.

This book arose from a two-day symposium called Rethinking and Researching 20th Century Aboriginal Exemption in Australia, held at La Trobe University’s Shepparton Campus in October 2018. Elders directed the planning committee and community member involvement, and there was input from the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Cultural Arts Centre for Koorie Education at GOTAFE. Separate ‘yarning circles’ were held for Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members, academics and students. Of the eleven authors who contributed chapters to this collection, all but one are women, and four are Indigenous. This affects the type of book it is. A collection of papers presented as part of a conference or symposium has a different structure and tempo from a volume written by one person alone. Because they are written to reflect a timed, oral presentation, there is a fairly standard length and each one is self-contained, taking its own ‘bite’ at the question. Within each one there is a structure of introduction-evidence-conclusion, but unless there is a final, integrating chapter (and in this collection, there is not) there is often no over-arching conclusion. The La Trobe University connection between the authors comes through very clearly, with a strong representation of La Trobe academics and alumni.

Australia was not the only country to introduce exemption legislation. John Maynard, in the opening chapter, points out that historically, there were similar processes in French and Belgian colonies – not that looking to the Congo for policy is much of a recommendation (p. 14) Both Canada and America had similar policies with their Indigenous populations, starting with Canada in 1857 and in America in 1906. Rather disingenuously, the Queensland legislation of 1897 was called the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, even though only 6 of its 33 clauses related to opium, the remaining all directed towards control of Indigenous people.

So how did one get exempted? When the individual Indigenous person initiated the process, it involved writing a letter to the responsible authority, providing references, then attending an interview. It was intrusive and judgmental. All of this correspondence, and the government reports that led to either the approval or rejection of the application are part of the National Archives of Australia collection. As Katherine Ellinghaus noted in her chapter where she reviews the history of the exemption legislation, “the archives of exemption are incredible: vast, intimate and confronting”. They make judgements on intimate details of Indigenous lives: the cleanliness of their houses, whether or not they drank alcohol, who they were married to, if they were ‘troublesome’.

Those [records] that remain contain evidence of cruelty, misfortune and sadness, but also resistance, activism and survivance [sic]. Even the simplest and most everyday applications for exemption should be seen as documents of negotiation…[containing] extraordinary detail of people’s lives and families, often rendered in racist and unkind bureaucratic language

p. 40

As a result, the records are on restricted access, available only to their families, which is only right. Some families have allowed historians to access them, with names redacted. Other Indigenous people have drawn on these records in telling their own stories in the form of biographies and memoirs. Other stories are in oral form only. In this book, Indigenous contributors Aunty Kella Robinson and Aunty Judi Wickes draw on their own family stories, while in other chapters families have given permission to the historian, with names changed.

From these stories, we see that people sought exemption for a number of reasons. Sometimes it was because other welfare provisions were tied up with it- that you could only get a Commonwealth old-age pension if you held a certificate of exemption. For other people, it was a way of escaping the mission and taking up work opportunities elsewhere. Even there was no specific legislation in Victoria, families sought to escape the involvement of the Aborigines Welfare Board in their lives by seeking ‘self-determined exemption’ (p.85) from the vagaries of changing government policies, as explained in Jessica Horton’s chapter. Ella Simon, a revivalist preacher associated with the evangelical United Aborigines Mission, despised the certificate of exemption she gained in 1957. As Jennifer Jones shows in her chapter, gaining exemption meant that she could undertake her travelling ministry without being exposed to segregation, but it meant that she had to officially abjure her links with the Purfleet UAM mission, which was an integral part of her identity and faith. Karen Hughes’ chapter looks at the examples of two US War Brides, whose certificate of exemption enabled their journey to the United States, where they faced new forms of discrimination. Leonie Stevens’ chapter ‘Smash the Exemption System’ examines the Northern Territory, where at the time of introduction, Indigenous people (themselves a multi-cultural group) were the majority of the population, outnumbering the non-Indigenous population 4:1(p. 167). The Half Caste Progressive Association played an integral role, first in achieving the legislation in the 1930s and then attacking it in the 1950s. The Northern Australian Workers Union, active in the Pilbara strikes, and other networks drew on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, widening the pressure for change beyond the Territory to a national and international level.

At the same time, these stories highlight the precariousness of the status awarded by a certificate of exemption. If it was rescinded, families were forced to return to the mission, where there was a strong chance that their children would be taken. As part of their powerlessness, if the policies changed, their lives changed too. Beth Marsden’s chapter ‘Destination of Pupil ‘Unknown” shows the fluidity of family relocations along the Victorian/NSW border as children were enrolled in school, often with vague information provided by the parents, and then withdrawn to escape the scrutiny of the state and the fear of removal. In NSW segregated schooling had developed when school principals requested to exclude Aboriginal children on the grounds of complaints made by white communities (p.109) Shifting back and forth across the border was a way of maintaining family networks and resisting the bureaucracies of both states, but it must have affected the childrens’ education.

I was appalled, reading these stories, one after the other. I understand completely the sensitivities and pain involved in telling family stories, where the decisions of one generation about identity and identification cascade through into succeeding generations. These stories, and the judgments and prejudices that prompted them, are for the family to tell. But the repetition of these injustices, in one family and then another and another, highlights that this was a structural, government-sanctioned process. It should be better known, and it needs to be part of the Truth Telling that must, eventually, come.

As Ellinghaus says:

The history of exemption must be fully told, not just to historians and stakeholders, but to mainstream Australia as part of the truth-telling that this nation sorely needs. There should be public recognition of the damage that has been done by these policies, perhaps in the same way that we have seen for the Stolen Generations. Not just recognition, apologies and reparations, but the inclusion of these people who have suffered through this policy in the narrative of settler colonialism in Australia.

p. 41

On the basis of the editorship and the predominance of female contributors, I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Oh Happy Day: Those Times and These Times’ by Carmen Callil

2020, 282 p.

Somehow or other I have ended up with a second-hand copy Carmen Callil’s earlier book Bad Faith on my bookshelf. When I purchased it from who-knows-where, I did not know who Callil was, but I was aware that her book had been well received. Even though Bad Faith remains unread, I now know that Carmen Callil is Australian, even though she has lived in England since 1964, and that she started Virago Press and has worked in the field of publishing and literature ever since. So I picked up her most recent book Oh Happy Day: Those Times and These Times when I saw it at the library.

The blurb on the back reads:

Carmen Callil explores her roots in a book that is a miracle of research and whose writing is fuelled by righteous anger…Carmen Callil not only reclaims from obscurity the lives of these ordinary men and women who were sent to Australia as convicts or domestic servants, but also draws telling parallels for our own times. Oh Happy Day is a moving story of poverty, social injustice, Empire and migration.

As I have said many times before on this blog – so many times that I’m boring myself too- I am drawn to ‘Who Do You Think You Are’-type books and programs, and I am usually disappointed. I like the history; I like the stories of largely unknown people, but I find the displays of emotion on the part of the searcher to be maudlin and somewhat self-centred. The tears are triggered more by a sense of identification – “that’s MY great-grandmother” – rather than from a sense of injustice that anyone endured such sorrow or deprivation. Probably the best family history/quest I have read is Graeme Davison’s Lost Relations, and re-reading my review here, I again find myself nodding in agreement with Davison’s reservations about the endeavour, many of which I share. Callil’s book is not unlike Davison’s in that it takes a broad view of the context, then embeds the individuals within it, rather than the other way round. And that’s the way I like it.

The three sets of family trees in the book, one at the front, two in the appendices, makes it patently obvious that this is going to be a book based on genealogy. In her introduction Callil writes that she intended to write about all her English, Irish and Lebanese emigrant ancestors, but then decided to focus on three: Sary Lacey; George Conquest, the father of one of Sary’s children, and Mary Ann Brooks, who married Sary’s son. All three ended up in Australia via different routes; all three are found on branches of Callil’s family tree; and all three are used as vehicles by which Callil tells her story of nineteenth century working class life.

I’m not going to go into the details of these individuals’ lives. As often happens with family historians, the researcher feels a familiarity (on first name basis no less) with the individuals on their family tree and the minutiae of their lives, that can become eye-glazingly tedious to outsiders. I’m more interested in the bigger themes that she draws out.

The first theme is the effect of technological change on the stocking frame workers in Leicestershire. Until now, I wasn’t particularly clear on what a stocking frame even was. The home-based stocking frame workers had a rhythm to their working week – collecting the wool, working feverishly for about four days, taking back the finished product then a few days later collecting the wool to start the whole cycle again. They rented their frames from middle-men, who took their own cut. However, the fashions changed, new machines that did not fit inside a house were invented, and the trade shifted into factories instead, with those few stocking frame workers clinging to the old ways offered less and less for a product that no one wanted.

Second, I knew about the changes to the Poor Laws in the 1830s, but I hadn’t quite realized the ‘like it or lump it’ approach it took to the destitute who sought assistance: it was the Poor House or nothing. Her telling of Sary’s life in particular illustrates the contingent and precarious nature of working class life, and the thread of relationships that could keep a family just outside the Poor House walls. The stories of Callil’s ancestors emphasize the physical proximity of family, shifting from street to street, generally staying close to other family. She hints – because she can do no more than that- at an incestuous relationship. She suggests the ruses and half-truths that enabled Sary to work the system sufficiently to survive. She notes the importance of Nonconformist religion amongst the working class and highlights the political turmoil amongst the working class at the time, even though there is no evidence that her family was involved.

Third, only one of her three ancestors is transported to Australia, but she devotes considerable space to the convict system as it changed over time, and as George Conquest experienced it. Here I feel that she faces the similar hazard as Babette Smith confronted in her Defiant Voices (my review here) where the dramatic and cruel is emphasized, but the examples in the book reveal the opposite. Callil is not a historian, but she does engage with the academic literature. Her own dispute with John Hirst’s argument that the convict system was more negotiable than, say Robert Hughes’ depiction of systematized violence and terror, is played out more in the footnotes than in the text. In a footnote she describes Hirst’s Convict Society (my review here) as “an exquisite example of Australian revisionist history, revealing much about its writer and little about the experience of convicts- and others of the time” (p. 308). Even though she spends many pages describing whippings and brutality, her ancestor George Conquest was not sent to a secondary penal settlement, and there is no evidence that he was whipped. In fact, he was almost a poster-child for the opportunities that could open up through transportation, partially through the benevolence and assistance of a magistrate-settler to whom he was assigned, and also through his own astuteness and hard work in taking advantage of the situations that presented themselves. Even though the convict system was intended to keep convicts on the other side of the world, George Conquest was even able to visit England again, returning by choice to Australia and finding himself in a position to help family members.

In her introduction Callil wrote that she had a present-day purpose in writing this book:

So I decided to tell only the story of Sary, George and Mary Ann, natives of England’s labouring poor – the paupers, asylum seeks and refugees of their day. Their story raised a question: had so little changed in Britain in the last 200 years, that generation could succeed generation, each one repeating their grim experiences?

p. xvi

I don’t know that she really explores this question in much depth in the book. Where she does draw parallels with the present day, it is in passing or concentrated within the closing pages of the book, almost as a polemic about refugees, Brexit, indigenous affairs, rather than engaged with as a serious question. I was disappointed, too, that she did include her Lebanese forefathers at the end of the book after all, despite her intention to concentrate on Sary, George and Mary Ann. It is such a cursory treatment that I felt it weakened the book, rather than strengthened it. Sary, George and Mary Ann are strong characters, whose lives provide much to work with, and I think that she should have stayed with them alone. Her research into the Britain they left, and the Australia to which they came is detailed and rich, especially for people who are unknown to all but family, but I’m not sure that the book meets the expectations for present-day commentary that the title and her introduction suggest.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.