Category Archives: Book reviews

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

2019, 415p.

I read The Handmaid’s Tale back in 1997, before I started this blog. I can remember turning the last page and cursing that everything was left so indeterminate. Well, 36 years later, we finally have closure! Of course, in between there has been the enormously successful HULU series which started in 2017, and the red cloaks and white bonnets have been incorporated into protest iconography, especially in response to abortion rights and the Trump presidency.

The Testaments is told in alternating chapters, that are labelled either ‘The Ardua Hall Holograph’ or ‘Transcript of Witness Testimony 369A or 369B’. The Holograph is addressed to an unknown reader, by a writer who does not know if it will ever be read. She introduces herself to us in the second segment:

I am well aware of how you must be judging me, my reader; if that is, my reputation has preceded me and you have deciphered who I am, or was. In my own present day I am a legend, alive but more than alive, dead but more than dead…. I’m a bugaboo used by the Marthas to frighten small children – If you don’t behave yourself, Aunt Lydia will come and get you!

p.32

And so we meet Aunt Lydia again, indelibly cast in my mind as the actress Anne Dowd. We learn more about the Aunts, who now need to recruit young missionaries to cross over into Canada to entice young women across to Gilead. As one of the four ‘founding’ Aunts, Aunt Lydia has power, although the founding Aunts have decided to publicly defer to the Commanders. In the pre-Gilead world, Aunt Lydia was originally a Judge- which is rather uncanny with the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, a member of ‘People of Praise’ group that used to have a religious rank ‘handmaid’. (This article explains that another Catholic charismatic group ‘People of Hope’ who also used the term ‘handmaid’ may have influenced Atwood’s original book). Through Aunt Lydia’s book, conveyed through Holograph, we learn what her experience was as Gilead became a Theocracy, how and why she became an Aunt, and how Gilead is sustained through the Aunts’ work.

It takes a little while to work out the Witness Testimonies. It becomes clear that there are two witnesses, although their narrative voices are very (and too) similar. I won’t say how they fit into the story, but I became increasingly apprehensive about why they were designated ‘Witness Testimonies’. The ending of the book very much echoed the epilogue of the original Handmaid’s Tale.

The visual imagery and architecture of the HULU Handmaid’s Tale streamed series is so striking that this book seemed particularly devoid of description. I can’t remember whether that was the case for the original Handmaid’s Tale book or not. Atwood has worked as consulting producer on the series, and perhaps she – like us – has internalized the ‘look’ of Gilead so much that there is no need to spell it out.

I bought the hardcover version, which is really beautiful. It has eschewed the red and white of the handmaid’s uniform for dark blue, bright green and white. The endpapers (is that the right word? the inside of the cover) are a clever visual trick that switches between handmaid and girl with a ponytail. It made me remember how much I enjoy reading a real, hard-cover, printed book.

I finished the original The Handmaid’s Tale thinking “NOW what happens??” Margaret Atwood doesn’t leave her readers so unsatisfied this time – you know exactly what happened. And she has left plenty of space for Series 4, Series 5…as many Series as they want.

This book was awarded the 2019 Booker Prize, even before it was released here in Australia. I don’t know whether it really deserved it in its own right as a literary work, as distinct from a cultural phenomenon. It’s well constructed and satisfying but the writing is rather pedestrian, although that may well reflect the paucity of intellectual life in Gilead and post-Second-Civil-War Canada. I can’t help thinking that it received the Booker through gratitude that there finally was a sequel, and for the perspicacity that created a Gilead that we have more cause to fear now than in 1985.

My rating: 8.5 /10

Sourced from: purchased as a pre-lockdown indulgence.

‘The Seventies: The personal, the political and the making of modern Australia’ by Michelle Arrow

2019, 239 p plus notes

It’s strange when you read a history that is analysing events that you lived through yourself. The events are familiar, of course, but there’s also an element of surprise at things you didn’t realize at the time, and at the matters that the historian has placed emphasis on, when you weigh them against your own perspectives and memories. It’s also rather disconcerting to realize that your own lifespan is now considered ‘history’.

Of course, histories of a given decade or century do not neatly conform to calendars. Historians speak of the ‘long’ eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in this case, Michelle Arrow sets the start date for the ‘sixties’ with the retirement of Robert Menzies in 1966 (I don’t know if I agree with her here), and ends ‘the seventies’ with the election of the Hawke ALP government in 1983. As she points out, there has been relatively little scholarly interest paid to the Seventies in Australia, especially in comparison with the United States and the United Kingdom. The decades of the 1950s, 1960s and 1980s in Australia have all received book-length treatment, but the only stand-alone study of Australia in the 1970s was Frank Crowley’s Tough Times: Australia in the Seventies. The 1970s, she argues, have either been defined solely in political terms, most particularly involving The Dismissal, or as a gloomy economic narrative leading up to the 1980s and 1990s as a period of economic deregulatory reform (think Paul Kelly’s The End of Certainty or George Megalogenis’ work).

Her book does not pretend to be a comprehensive history of the decade, but it does emphasize social change rather than political events and economic policies:

Somehow the social movements and social change of the decade sit just outside the frame through which we see the 1970s…This book places them front and centre and positions them as key drivers of change…this book is primarily concerned with the ways new understandings of gender and sexuality transformed Australia, and as a result it focuses on the women’s movement and the gay and lesbian movement.

p.11

And so, having made the women’s movement and the gay and lesbian movement her main frames of analysis, this book traces these two themes through the 1970s, discussing social and political events of those years along the way. As has been the case with many of the decisions and programs of the Whitlam government (e.g. dismantling the White Australia policy, withdrawing from Vietnam), quite a few had already been set in train in the last years of the 1960s, although not prosecuted with the fervor of the Labor years. This was also true of the women’s movement and the gay/lesbian movement. There had been ‘women’s groups’ of different political hues throughout the twentieth century, pushing for ‘liberalism’ rather than ‘liberation’. The Homosexual Law Reform Association of the Act was formed in 1969, priding itself on the knowledge that ‘no member of our committee is a practicing homosexual’ (p. 30)

What changed in the 1970s was that the mantra ‘the personal is political’ was taken up by both the women’s movement and gay/lesbian rights groups. Consciousness-raising groups brought up individual stories which were then woven into a political analysis of systemic oppression. It’s hard for us to realize now, in our time when everyone has their ‘story’ and their ‘journey’, that 1960s Australia, along with other Western cultures, was content for uncomfortable stories to be kept private, out of the public eye, and certainly not the basis for political (as distinct from individual) action.

However, ‘The personal is political’ did not translate into electoral success for women in the 1972 election that swept Gough Whitlam to power after 23 years of Liberal-Country party government. (An amazing thought: people voted in that election who had never seen any other government than a Liberal-Country party one). There were no women in the House of Representatives, and the only two women in the Senate were from the Liberal Party. As a result, Gough Whitlam appointed Elizabeth Reid to be his advisor on women’s affairs, from a short list that included Anne Summers, Eva Cox and historian Lyndall Ryan. It was a tough gig. She had no staff but she became the public face of the women’s movement (p.93). Many in the women’s movement objected to her appointment by a man. She embarked on a listening tour and inviting women to write to her, hearing women’s stories- there are those stories again- in order to develop policy ideas to turn the personal into policy. Equal pay for equal work, the introduction of the single mothers benefit, and improving the quality and availability of child care emerged as the most important needs. There was an uneasy relationship between the Whitlam government and the women’s movement, and between Elizabeth Reid and the women’s movement as well.

In 1972 with Helen Reddy’s ‘I am Woman’ ringing in their ears, the UN General Assembly declared 1975 to be International Women’s Year. In the leadup, Spectrum research had conducted a research report into the status of women that both provided a snapshot into women’s lives but also revealed a widespread lack of interest in feminist issues and the women’s movement more broadly. A grants program set up as part of IWY further exacerbated this schism (although many of the projects and women creators who were supported through these grants have stood the test of time). The headline event was the week-long Women and Politics conference in Canberra, which was opened by Gough Whitlam on the evening of the 31 August. Arrow notes that in many ways it was an exemplary feminist project, with subsidized fares for low-income participants and free child care. But it also highlighted the fractures in the women’s movement between white feminists and migrant women, working class women and particularly Aboriginal Women, led by Marcia Langton, many of whom had different priorities to the largely middle-class white feminists. But as the political temperature rose in 1975, Reid’s power was reduced; there was a suggestion that she be moved into the bureaucracy, and she tendered her resignation.

‘The Personal is Political’ was writ large in the Royal Commission on Human Relationships, headed by Justice Elizabeth Evatt, journalist Anne Deveson and Brisbane Anglican archbishop Felix Arnott, which was established by the Whitlam government in late 1974. By the time it reported on 28 February 1978, the Fraser government wanted no part of it. It was not the first government inquiry into human relationships – the Royal Commission on the Decline of the Birth-Rate and on the Mortality of Infants in New South Wales of 1903-04 was a world-first – but unlike that earlier commission which mainly heard from men, the 1974 commission actively sought the views of women. The files of this Commission form the heart of Arrow’s book, where she describes some of the evidence collected in the submissions, both in relation to women’s issues and homosexuality, and traces through the muted response once the government had changed.

Australia had become a “nation of bank tellers” in the second half of the 1970s, as the role of women’s adviser became circumscribed, the Women’s branch had its resources cut, and funding for refuges dried up. The National Women’s Advisory Council was established in 1978 ‘to assist in policy making’. Chaired by the vice-president of the Victorian liberal party, Beryl Beaurepaire, it included an Aboriginal woman, a migrant woman, a representative of the ACTU, the President of the Family Planning Association, law lecturer (and later Governor General) Quentin Bryce and a representative of the CWA. Only Wendy McCarthy, the Family Planning president, was part of the women’s movement. Arrow argues that it replicated much of the work of the Commission on Human Relations, and although it developed a comprehensive policy agenda, none of the initiatives came to fruition until the Hawke Labor government. There was backlash over abortion reform (think Margaret Tighe and the Right to Life); religious conservatives became more organized (think Festival of Light) and groups like the Women’s Action Alliance and Women Who Want to be Women formed a visible anti-feminist front. Sex education became bitterly contested, especially in its approach to homosexuality. The first Mardi Gras parade, held in June 1978 opened up a new more confrontational phase in gay and lesbian politics. (p. 220)

Reflecting the ‘long’ Seventies that Arrow deals with, the book closes with the Women Against Rape collective protests at Anzac Day commemorations in the early 1980s – a reassertion of the ‘personal is political’ trope into national affairs. In her Afterword Arrow picks up on the Hawke Labor government, and the emphasis on the economy that has largely obscured the importance of using individual story-telling as the basis for political action. But there is no great triumphant ending here. Perhaps the most important legacy is the continuation of the recognition that the personal is political, as seen in the Human Rights Commission Bringing Them Home report in 1997 and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2017. But, as Arrow points out, too often “personal stories are told without political activism to animate them…the political is all to often reduced to the personal.” And there is still much unfinished business of the 1970s.

This book won the Ernest Scott Prize for 2020, awarded annually “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.” It is carefully footnoted and researched, but it maintains a light tone which is personal at times. It is well-structured in a narrative sense with chapters divided into discrete sections, and ‘hooks’ at the start and end of each section to drive the argument forward.

But, having lived through the seventies myself, I do wonder about the difference between the historian’s view and the perspective of those who lived at the time. In Arrow’s book, a documentary archive (i.e. the correspondence of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships) takes on an importance for a historian that I’m not really sure it had for the general public at the time. Was I even aware of it? I certainly didn’t contribute to the commission- in fact, did I know anyone who did? Maybe my obliviousness to this Royal Commission reflects nothing more than my own sheltered, middle-class, conservative, politics-free life at the time.

But perhaps even the visibility of, and participation in, inquiries then and now signals a change. I think of inquiries held today into what would previously been seen as ‘personal’ matters, most especially the Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse inquiry, and I think that there is a high level of public buy-in (e.g. the animus against George Pell; the ribbons on church railings) that I don’t recall existing in the 1970s. But perhaps the importance of an inquiry doesn’t rest in its creation or impact at the time, but the use that is made of it in the years and even decades following.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

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

‘The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company’ by William Dalrymple

2019, 397 p plus notes

In 1608, who would have thought that India – with a population of 150 million and the source of one quarter of the world’s manufacturing – would be devastated by a small joint-stock company from England, a country that had just 5% of India’s population and contributed only 3% of the world’s manufacturing? But over the next 250 years, that is just what happened, as the East India Company steadily drained India’s wealth in goods and precious stones and cash, pouring it into the Company’s coffers for its shareholders. This is the story that William Dalrymple tells in his The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company.

When the East India Company was established in 1599 in Tudor England, there was no indication that it was to become the behemoth that it did. Other joint-stock companies had been founded, and it was competing with similar companies from other European nations, all jostling to establish trade routes with the East Indies. Its ports in India were founded almost as a consolation prize when the better-financed Dutch dominated the Moluccas. However, through ingratiating themselves with the enormously wealthy Mughals in India, only to later exploit their rivalries, the East India Company had found a source of wealth even more lucrative than the East Indies. The wealth flowed one way only: straight to London. The precious stones, the golden thrones, the eye-watering amounts of money: this is the pillage that Shashi Tharoor describes in his Inglorious Empire (my review here).

But England was not the only nation involved in India, and the amount of European activity and interference in what England saw as its own market surprised me. Technological changes in warfare technology added to the European-based rivalry between Britain and France throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. This rivalry played out in the Carnatic Wars between the French and British armies stationed in India, using Indian troops, paid for with Indian money and lives. European technology also weighted the scales when the British extended their ‘assistance’ (at a price, of course) to different rulers vying for supremacy in India. I was surprised, too, by the involvement of European soldiers who adopted Indian names and headed various armies of Indian soldiers, on both the French and English sides.

Dalrymple tells his history through individuals, most particularly the East India Company merchants, the governors from England, and the Mughals, Nawabs, Rohillas, Sultans and Marathas whose assets were steadily stripped by the EIC. In telling his story, Dalrymple has his goodies and baddies. Robert Clive (yes, he of the Curry Powder) was a baddie, who had three stints in India, amassing huge personal wealth, facing (and staring down) a Parliamentary enquiry, and finally committing suicide. Warren Hastings, the first Governor of the Presidency of Fort William (Bengal) in Dalrymple’s eyes was a qualified goodie – and now I understand the nuances of Barry Jones’ response to the question ‘Who was the the first Governor General of India?’ Hastings, who was not beyond enriching himself either, was undermined by Sir Philip Francis -certainly a baddie in Dalrymple’s eyes (and incidently thought to be the author of the ‘Junius’ letters, much discussed in 19th British legal history). Francis was appointed to the supreme council of Bengal during Hastings’ Governor-Generalship. On his return to England, Francis began agitating for the impeachment of Warren Hastings which, after seven years, led to Hastings’ acquittal. Then there are the historic figures who are better known in other arenas. There’s Wellington (just plain old Arthur Wellesley at this stage) who led a number of battles, under the governor-generalship of his brother Richard. There’s General Cornwallis, who arrived in Calcutta in 1786 to replace Warren Hastings, after his surrender of the 13 Colonies to George Washington. He was determined to ensure that a settled colonial class would never emerge to challenge British rule in India as it had in America, and so he introduced a “whole raft of unembarrassedly racist legislation” (p.327) ensuring that the children of British men with Indian women would never be employed by the Company.

Dalrymple’s emphasis on individuals extends to the Indian protagonists in the story too. I’m ashamed to admit that as a European reader, I struggle to distinguish Indian and Muslim names. Dalrymple has gone to some lengths to support the reader in this. The narrative is prefaced by a lengthy list of Dramatis Personae, helpfully arranged more or less chronologically into categories: the British, the French, the Mughals, the Nawabs, the Rohillas, the Sultans of Mysore, the Marathas. Maps in the preface show the main cities, with the areas of influence by various chieftains, peshwahs and emperors identified. A paragraph after each name summarizes the main points of their story, and gives each one a distinct personality. The beautiful illustrations, inserted in three places in the book, also have an identifying paragraph. Most clearly defined of all is the Mughal Prince, Shah Alam, handsome, intelligent, and culture, who was tortured and blinded by the Rohillas. In fact, the violence in this book – who knows how accurate it was, depending on the chronicler – is really chilling.

The subtitle of Dalrymple’s book is “The Relentless Rise of the East India Company”. While it was certainly relentless, the rise was not without its setbacks. East India Company troops were defeated by the French-led troops on several occasions, and the company needed to be bailed out of bankruptcy in 1772 in exchange for greater British government oversight. This was always likely to be light-touch regulation, and many Parliamentarians had East India Company shares. And still the Company kept churning on, stripping Indian assets in order to distribute them for its British shareholders.

It’s interesting that Dalrymple chooses to end his book with the Battle of Delhi, with the defeat of the Marathas, in 1803. This left the Company the dominant military force and “the sinews of British supremacy” now established (p.382). He finishes at the high point of East India Company power, rather than with its removal from power after the Indian Mutiny as it is known in Britain, or the First War of Independence as it is known in India, and the final expiry of its charter in 1874.

Dalrymple’s purpose is not a ‘Rise and Fall’ story. Instead, it is a cautionary tale about corporations and power, as he makes clear in his epilogue. When corporations become too big to fail, as the East India Company was; or when they have Parliaments in their thrall through lobbyists and parliamentary shareholders; or when they can just buy military might and other people’s bodies – then much is at stake. As he says in his closing sentence: “Four hundred and twenty years after its founding, the story of the East India Company has never been more current.” (p.397)

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel’ by Lucinda Hawksley

You might not recognize the name, but you probably recognize the face of Lizzie Siddal. You will have seen her in John Millais’ painting Orphelia, deathly pale, her red hair flowing around her, her hands uplifted in supplication. It is the image that Lucinda Hawksley has chosen to use on the cover of her book about Lizzie’s life. In her subtitle ‘The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel’, Hawksley draws a not-completely satisfying parallel between Lizzie’s life and those of the supermodels of the 1990s. I might quibble with the supermodel concept, but certainly not with the designation of ‘tragedy’. Lizzie Siddal’s life trajectory took her far beyond her origins, but she was always insecure and wary, and eventually succumbed to addiction.

2004, 256 p.

Lizzie Siddal (originally spelled Siddall but changed on her husband’s suggestion to make it look more genteel) worked in Mrs Tozer’s hat shop in 1849 when she was approached by an artist, Walter Deverell, who was looking for an artists’ model for Viola in a painting of Twelfth Night that he was working on. Lizzie had had a ‘respectable’, religious lower class upbringing. In a scenario reminiscent of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, her father was engaged in a long and ultimately fruitless attempt to claim ownership of a convoluted family fortune. Her father worked as a cutler, and the children needed to work, but this did not mean that Lizzie leapt at the opportunity. Walter Deverell’s mother called on Lizzie’s family to assure them that Lizzie’s reputation would not be damaged by the modelling, as Mrs Deverell herself and her daughters would be present at all times. Thus Lizzie was launched into a milieu completely foreign to her.

Walter Deverell was amongst the circle (although not one of the original members) of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), a group of seven students who criticized the teaching of art in art schools, harking back to the rich colours and animated subject matter of Botticelli and other early Italian artists. It had all gone downhill since Raphael, they said, and so they adopted the name ‘Pre-Raphaelite’. The original group of 7 included John Everett Millais (who painted ‘Ophelia’), William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his brother William, Thomas Woolner, Frederic George Stephens and James Collison. It expanded to include Ford Madox Brown, Walter Deverell, William Morris and Charles Allston Collins. They were always on the lookout for ‘stunners’ and in Lizzie Siddal they found one.

Unfortunately for Lizzie, she was not the only ‘stunner’ associated with the PRB. New women were being brought in all the time, and like Lizzie, often engaged in relationships with the artists. Lizzie fell in love with Dante Rossetti, who made moves to marry her (against his family’s wishes) but he then retreated over a number of years, embarking on relationships with other women within the circle, before returning to Lizzie. A destructive cycle was established: Dante would go off with another woman; Lizzie would increase her intake of laudanum, a commonly used drug, and refuse to eat; Dante would come rushing back to her bedside; she would improve; he would go off again.

As Hawksley points out, laudanum or ‘tincture of opium’ was a mixture of opium and alcohol that was widely available over the counter from greengrocers, barbers, ironmongers or at market stalls. Mothers spiked their babies’ bottles with in when they had to work and it was used to quell the symptoms of cholera, diarrhoea, gout, rheumatism, toothache, sprains and ulcers…and any number of other symptoms. Certainly, just do an image search on Google for Lizzie Siddal, and you’ll see her depiction in myriad paintings looking very much ‘on the nod’.

I wasn’t really aware of Lizzie Siddal’s story, and so I’m not going to divulge the ending, although you’re probably already well aware that it’s not going to end well. And, in keeping with the Victorian gothic sensibility that runs just under the surface of the whole book, just being dead wasn’t the end of the story.

Hawksley is fairly condemnatory of Lizzie Siddal, seeing her as emotionally manipulative, and using her possible eating disorder and addiction as a way of drawing Rossetti back to her. That might be true, but I think I’d cut her some slack in what I see as a mutually unhealthy relationship, where she had little other power.

Although focussing on Lizzie and Dante, this book has a wide range of supporting characters with familiar names – almost like a who’s who of the mid 19th century British artistic world. At times I feel that Hawksley pursued too many rabbits down rabbit holes for the sake of a good story, and I wished that she had indicated in the text whether the painting under discussion was included amongst the illustrations in the book. But Hawksley explains things well for a reader with only fragmentary knowledge of the PRB, and manages to keep a huge number of characters under control. I heard the author, who happens to be Charles Dickens’ great great great grand-daughter speaking in Birmingham when we were there in 2011.

Lizzie as supermodel? Certainly she was chosen because her looks – her striking (although unpopular at the time) red hair, her slim boyish figure, her languor – suited the medieval sensibility that the PRB was trying to create/recapture. Addictions and eating disorders are not unknown to supermodels. But I’m not sure that she had ‘fame’ in the sense that we granted to the supermodels of the 1990s, and certainly her respectability and reputation was compromised by mingling in ‘artistic’ circles. It’s hard to see positive agency in Lizzie’s life. So I think I’ll just leave the ‘supermodel’ aside, but I certainly acknowledge the ‘tragedy’.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: my own bookshelves. At last. I think we bought it in 2011 after hearing the author speak.

‘Fred and Edie’ by Jill Dawson

2000, 276 p.

I obviously bought this book at some stage but can’t remember why. Was it after a review that I had read; because of the steep reduction in price from $31.30 to $6.95, or on account of the striking cover? (am I so easily swayed?) For whatever reason, it has been on my shelf for some time.

The book was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Whitbread Novel of the Year in 2000. It is loosely based on the real-life murder case of Edith (Edie) Thompson and Freddy Bywaters, who were hanged in January 1923 for the murder of Edith’s husband Percy. It is written as a series of letters from Edie in her jail to Fred in his, where they are both awaiting trial. Hoping at first to smuggle the letters out, Edie decides not to actually convey them to Fred, which frees her to be more frank. The letters are interspersed with authentic newspaper articles from the time, and a first-person present-tense narrative that gives the back story.

Edith Thompson was nine years older than her lover, Freddy. Edith was a modern, intelligent, independent young lady with shingled hair, who earned a good wage in a millinery shop. At first Freddy was going out with her sister Avis, but he was attracted to Edie and came to live for a while with the unhappily-married Edith and Percy. After an altercation between the two men, Freddy left.

Some time later Edith and her husband Percy were walking home from a night at the theatre, when a man jumped out and stabbed Percy to death. Fred was arrested, and on being (incorrectly) told that he had confessed, Edith admitted that she knew that Freddy was the assailant and the nature of their relationship.

Even though Edith had no connection with the actual murder, the discovery of a cache of letters that Edith had written to Freddy was tendered to the court in evidence, revealing their affair and Edith’s attempt to poison and kill Percy by putting ground up glass in his food. They were both found guilty of murder. Freddy Bywaters protested Edith’s innocence, which ironically led to a surge in public pressure against his hanging. Edith’s position with the public – despite Bywater’s declarations and the lack of her involvement in the murder- was more equivocal. For many people, including the judge and jury, she was seen as the master-mind and an adulteress – and guilty. You can’t help thinking that she was executed for being a passionate, feisty adulteress (not a capital crime) rather than as a murderer.

Dawson has been able to use the real-life letters that were tendered in the court as a model for Edie’s voice in this fictionalized account. Edie’s awakening sexuality, even with the boorish Percy in her heightened sense of attraction, is well described, and the fictional letters capture well the giddiness and rashness of early infatuation.

There’s a fantastic website put together by one of her biographers Rene Weiss that can be found at https://edithjessiethompson.co.uk/ that includes all the authentic letters, an entire copy of Weiss’ book, photographs, and current news. I enjoyed the book in its own right, but I must admit that my admiration for Dawson’s book increased further when I saw the source material from which she drew to write her own fictional account.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: my very own bookshelves!

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

2020, 284 p.

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

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

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

(p.xv)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 7.5- maybe 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

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

‘Searching for Charlotte’ by Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell

2020, 304 p.

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

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

(p.162)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Review copy from NLA via Quikmark media

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

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

2016, 292 p. plus notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

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

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

1946, [reprint 1974], 479 p.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: My own bookshelves!

‘See What You Made Me Do’ by Jess Hill

2019, 416 p.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: ebook from Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge